Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: Beyond Mother Goose Page 1 of 2

Golden Girls

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, published February 2021 (in the US).

The story is your obvious YA story. A young girl who used to be not very popular in her village, due to her heritage, has hidden powers with which she can help the emperor’s army defeat the demonic creatures that befall the land. Of course, everyone, even the emperor, has a hidden agenda. Soon it’s clear that Deka, the main character, has to become the saviour of all, especially of oppressed girls and women.

In this case the story has a west African background. The world-building is good. The main character, Deka, is strong and her character arc is interesting. But, sorry to say, it is a YA fantasy that distinguishes itself only by not being based on European or North American fantasy blueprints.

If you liked Six of Crows…

… you might want to give this a pass. This being Adrienne Young’s latest YA fantasy book Fable, published 01 September, 2020.

Fable is the 17 year old heroine of this story. Left stranded on an island four years ago, she eventually has managed to scrounge away enough money to leave the island. Where to? In search of her father, who had left her on the island, right after his ship drowned with Fable’s mother on board; who had carved a mark into her forearm; whom she wants to prove herself to as a worthy member of his pirate crew.

In order to reach the island where her father has his home port she joins the crew of the Marigold under it’s helmsman West. A vessel Fable had been trading jewels with for the past years.

The premise for the book is great: female heroine, pirates, ships, a crew of misfits, found family, and romance. The delivery though.

Neither character feels fully fleshed to me, they are all rather shallow. Yes, of course Fable’s character has a bit more flesh than the secondary characters, of whom West and Willa are the two memorable ones. I have already forgot the names of the three other members of the crew.

The plot is slow paced and rather boring. Nothing much happens for the first two thirds of the book. The crew sails the ship from island to island to trade. There is banter, there are shenanigans, but it’s all just foreplay for the last third of the book. Then suddenly so many things happen at once that it is difficult to keep up and then we are left with a cliffhanger.

The romance also happens from zero to sixty. First West hardly interacts with Fable and then, after one kiss -granted that underwater kiss was well-written- there are confessions of love? That’s way too fast.

Other reviewers have compared this book to Bardugo’s Six of Crows. I cannot see the connection. Yes, we do have a crew of misfits. Yes, West might be the brooding type with a rather dark streak. Yes, there is two-facing, there is cunning, and there is “sleight of hand” involved in this story; but, in my opinion, it doesn’t even come close to Six of Crows.

Childhood Revisited

My childhood as a reader was influenced by the series we all know and love, mainly Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. But beyond that, I was obsessed with books by German author Kai Meyer. Last year I saw him at a reading and he announced that one of his trilogies was about to get a fourth book. I was hoping it would be one of my childhood favourites, either The Wave Walkers (US, or The Wave Runners in the UK) or Dark Reflections. Indeed, it turned out to be a fourth book for Dark Reflections and I was thrilled. Of course I had to read the original three books again – while I remembered loving them, the details were really blurry.

The three books (The Water Mirror, The Stone Light and The Glass Word) take place in an alternative reality, in which Venice is a city alive with magic, living stone lions and mermaids. But there is a threat from the Egyptian Empire, which has conquered most of the world except the Russian Empire and Venice. While the Russians are protected by none other than Baba Yaga, Venice is protected by a mysterious presence called the Flowing Queen. The story itself follows Merle and Serafin, who are at the right place at the right time to save the city from being handed over to the Egyptians on a silver plate. Which leads to Merle drinking the essence of the Flowing Queen, escaping on a flying stone lion to set off on a trip to literal hell to get help and Serafin joining resistance forces in the city.

I loved the books as a child – next to this paragraph you can see the German edition of the first one – but reading them again now I was often irritated by the wild mix of concepts. Magic, hell, sphinxes, mermaids, sea witches, flying stone lions, Egyptian priests, traveling through mirrors, parallel worlds, seasons incarnated, …. it’s a lot to take in and sometimes does not fit together seamlessly. I still enjoyed the reread because it was so nostalgic, and I’m looking forward to getting to the fourth book.

Reading it as an adult you may come across some weird plot devices that seem extremely far-fetched, but I think younger readers will still enjoy this as much as I did in the past. One of the main reasons is that Kai Meyer manages to write believable female main characters. Many (or probably most) of his books are centered around girls and they are most definitely not princesses who need rescuing. The Wave Walkers for example is about a pirate girl who can walk on water. Geeky twelve year old me was totally on board for that.

Sapphic Love and Pirates

The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, publishing date 5 May, 2020.

YA standalone about pirates, mermaids, the Sea as an entity, witches, imperialism, slavery, misogyny, arranged marriage, torture, …

A story about love between two women from very different sides of the tracks, the love of a mother for her children, the love of two siblings, the love between a found family, the love of profit. But it fell very flat.

There is Evelyn, a high born woman sailing towards her arranged marriage. She’s leaving behind her servant/lover/best friend without a care about the girl’s future. There is no love between her and her parents, she feels like a pawn in their game.

There is Flora/Florian, a black orphan, who, together with her brother, became a member of the crew of the Dove out of desperation. She turns a blind eye on the captain’s plans to sell the passengers into slavery once they are far enough from their port of departure.

The world-building is a Japan-inspired imperialistic world. There is lots of commentary about colonialism and misogyny.

Witchcraft is introduced in the second part of the book. It was intriguing, but there are only a few instances where magic is used.

The Sea as a mother caring for her children and plotting revenge on the men who kill her offspring is as interesting as the witchcraft element. It’s elaborated on similarly, too.

The romance between Evelyn and Florian is a set thing, soulmates, match made in heaven, why elaborate and show how they fall for each other? I didn’t buy the insta-love. Further, their love for each other is supposed to be what the whole plot rotates about, but we hardly see the two of them have meaningful dialogue.

The middle of the book was rather boring, compared to the interesting and well-paced first part and the rushed ending. Not all issues were resolved.

I wanted to like this book very much. It had a lot of potential. The execution though disappointed me.

2.5/5 Goodreads stars (that’s 3 stars then)

Sing your magic & swing your scythe

Sisters of Sword and Song by Rebecca Ross, publishing date 23 June 2020.

Although this YA novel has a trope-y title, the fantasy stand-alone unexpectedly was not full of YA tropes. A giant plus, neither of the MCs is a princess, or even wants to be a princess.

Two sisters who haven’t seen each other for eight years are going to be reunited for a few days. The older sister Halcyon trained in the queen’s army, while Evadne stayed at home in the olive grove helping on her family’s farm. When Halcyon turns up early, on the run from her commander, Evadne swears to help her. Neither of them can imagine that this will turn into a quest to save the kingdom.

The world-building was reminiscent of ancient Greece, yet has its own system of deities and magic. The two female MCs might be underdogs, but they are strong heroines whose sisterly connection is evident throughout the story. Even when the two sisters are not sharing the scene, their bond is strong.

The writing is good. Some of the dialogue feels stilted, though. I think this story is suitable for a younger YA audience, too.

3.5/5 Goodreads stars – that means 4/5

Book Thieves!!!

Lori and Max and the Book Thieves is the second book in the Lori and Max series by Catherine O’Flynn, Pub date 08 Oct 2020.

What’s new in the world of Max and Lori? Max was kidnapped in the first adventure of the two girls (Lori and Max, published in 2019) and now has a guard dog called Fang. There’s a new boy in their class, Taylor, who’s being bullied by an older pupil. Their regular teacher is on maternity leave; everybody hopes she’ll call the child ‘Colin’. The new teacher used to work in business, and tends to point out that things are different ‘in the real world’.

When Max’s phone is stolen, Max and Lori gang up with Taylor to get it back. Then Fang digs up a tupper box that leads Lori not only into her own past, but to the second case, the case of the book thieves.

The first case presents itself right at the beginning of the story, but the reader has to get to the middle of the book before the story of the stolen book is even introduced. This made me wonder why the book was supposed to be about book thieves when the first half of the book was about phone thieves. Young readers (age group 9-12 years) might be confused about this long wait.

3.5/5 Goodreads stars – that’s 4 stars then

More Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World by Elena Favilli. Pub Date: 13 Oct 2020

I was invited to review an early copy of the third instalment of the bestselling Good Night Stories series. This time the stories and illustrations concentrate on women who emigrated from their country of birth. Among those 100 women are very well known names such as Rihanna or Madeleine Albright.

Personally, I enjoyed the stories of less well-known-to-me women like Lupe Gonzalo (Migrant Farmer and Labour Organiser from Guatemala), or football referee Jawahir Jewels Roble (from Somalia) far more than the stories of Diane von Fürstenberg or Gloria Estefan.

The outstanding illustrations in this book were made by 70 artists identifying as women from all over the world. A list of all the names is included in the back of the book.

An empowering read that shouldn’t be missing on any shelf.

Whimsical fiction with gorgeous cover

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, published 14 May 2020.

Could I just say that I liked this book more than The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and be done with it? Yeah, thought so.

January, a child of mixed heritage, grows up in the mansion of Mr Locke, her father’s employer. Her father is often absent, travelling the world to find artefacts for Mr Locke. Meanwhile, January often travels with Mr Locke. On one such trip she finds out that her writing has magical ability, what she writes becomes true.

When her father doesn’t return from an expedition, now 17 year old January finds herself at a threshold. Stay with Mr Locke, ignore all she has discovered about herself and her parents so far, or go and open all the doors, find her father, find herself. Of course, she does the latter, but it is a very long walk on winding bumpy roads.

A whimsical YA story. Set in the early years of the 20th century, in the US and ten thousand fantastical worlds. A story about finding yourself, about family, heritage, and, of course, love.

4/5 Goodreads stars

Solving Mysteries with a young ACD

The House of Hidden Wonders by Sharon Gosling, published April 2, 2020.

It’s the year 1870. We’re in Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle is a medical student, but he’s not our main character. Our MC is Zinnie, a fierce young girl, trying to keep a roof over the heads of her sisters Sadie and Nell, and some sort of food on their table. This is how Doyle and Zinnie cross paths, Doyle pays Zinnie for small jobs – like recovering a pocket watch – which soon turns into solving mysteries.

Zinnie is a wonderful character, she’s loyal to her family and friends, she’s headstrong and intelligent. You know that she’ll prevail against all odds and that you can count on her to protect her siblings.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes their stories a little on the dark side, though not that dark, it’s a middle-grade after all. The historical figures included in the story don’t distract from Zinnie’s story or the mystery, they add to it.

Urban Fantasy, not only for kids

The Identity Thief (The God Machine #1) by Alex Bryant, published February 29th, 2020.

This is a middle-grade or tween Urban Fantasy Adventure I’m glad I didn’t miss out on. It was well-written and well-plotted and, although targeted at the considerably younger than me audience, it wasn’t boring or patronising its readers. There is nothing worse than having the feeling the author has to explain everything because they think their audience is made up of rather uninformed (aka dumb) 12 year-olds.

The villain of the story is a person called the Cuttlefish, who is stealing magical books. Although stealing books seems pretty harmless, Cuttlefish goes to extreme lengths to get the full set of magical books, he’s stealing identities and nixing people all over Britain.

The heroine – okay, let’s say main character – is Cassandra ‘Cass’ Drake, 12 y/o. She lives with her mother near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, where her father has been buried. Cass is a typical tween, seeking approval from her friends she can be quite unfriendly towards the new boy Hector, whom she met at the cemetery.

Hector and his mother live in an old mansion house, with Greek writing over the door. He’s trying to become Cass’s friend, but Cass is mortified by the idea, because her posse might find out. Hector being prone to seizures and socially awkward doesn’t help him making friends either.

For most part of the book we have two story-lines. There’s Cass and her friends, Hector, school, her mother, Hector’s mother – and lots of pre-teen drama. Bear with it, trust me. And then there’s Cuttlefish’s story, him stealing identities and books, for a reason we don’t know for a very long time. When the paths eventually cross, lots of stuff makes sense and the rest of the story is even more of a blast.

The magic system is based in ancient Greek, which makes people with Greek roots, like Hector and his mother, likely users of magic and therefore suspicious. Maybe that’s why Cass’s mother, a police officer in the special branch for magical policing, is so keen on befriending the family?

The story is full of twists and turns. To not overload the reader with lots of explanations the chapters are interspersed with pictures, notes, and newspaper clippings. This helps avoiding information dump. The Urban Fantasy setting, the humour, the slightly dark themes surrounding Cuttlefish reminded me of Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant.

I am looking forward to the next book in this series.

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