Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: Beyond Mother Goose Page 1 of 2

Why’s there a pirate ship on the cover?

That’s more or less what I am taking from reading The Beholder by Anna Bright, published 19 June 2019.

This YA just shows me, again, that YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi should no longer make it onto my TBR. In other words, I had so many issues with this book, …

The main character, Selah, is the Seneschal-Elect of Potomac. That means she’ll be the leader of her people once her father dies. Her task is it, as the future leader, female but definitely NOT feminist, to find herself a husband. Since The One she fell for at home doesn’t want her, her stepmother is sending Selah to Europe to find her match. Fairy tale retellings ahead. Selah seems to see herself as Snow White, since her step-mother will certainly kill her father now that she has sent Selah out to never come back home one way or another. Either she’ll marry one of her suitors and then stay in Europe, or the Baba Yaga will eat(?) her; that irrational fear is based on a fairy tale and a nursery rhyme Selah keeps repeating.

Selah is the perfect pawn of her story; literally, plot happens to her not because of her. She’s naive and trusts people too easily. She wears her feelings on her sleeve, and her tongue, unwisely telling everyone and their grandmother what she thinks and feels. And she feels a lot, especially very fast for the members of her crew and the suitors she meets. Hello insta-love.

The story is supposedly set in something similar to the late 18th or early 19th century. Which means, I was annoyed at the anachronistic use of words like “barf”. I was further annoyed at how ignorant Selah was. For a YA heroine she had no backbone whatsoever. She ranted about one of her suitors being nine years older than her, but a nearly arranged marriage for diplomatic reasons was obviously alright to her; why then is the age difference important? And why, oh why, do we see a tiny sliver of feminism when her friend wants to choose her own husband, but Selah is unaware that her situation is the same?

The writing is nothing to write home about. There’s more tell than show throughout the book, and the retellings of fairy tales do not always work advantageously.

To come back to my initial question. Why is there a picture of a ship on the cover? Especially an artfully carved one that immediately reminded me of the TV series Black Sails, and hence of pirates. Not to mention the title of the book being the name of the ship, yet most of the story doesn’t even take place on the ship. I was definitely blindsided by the cover. Shame on me!

1/5 Harpy Eagles

Little Red Riding Hood Retelling

For The Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten is the first book in the Wilderwoods series and was published on 1st June 2021.

As some of you might know that I am struggling with fairy tale retellings, especially YA, it might come as a surprise that I picked this up. Well, I picked it because it was hailed as a dark fantasy fairy tale retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that is not Young Adult.

Does it deliver? A resounding no! On so many levels. Quite contrary to some YA fantasy stories, where the characters seem to be much more mature than their late teenage years, this book’s heroine is supposed to be 20 years old but behaves like a moody teenager. Also, the story is more of a Beauty and the Beast retelling than LRRH. The parallels are very limited the heroine’s name, Red(arys), who wears a red cloak when she enters the Wilderwood to encounter the wolf; who’s actually just a young man.

I was very underwhelmed by this book. The characters are rather flat. The plot is not fully developed, neither is the magic system; the author seems to have added to the magic system whenever she needed another twist to the story, and so at around 90% I still hadn’t quite grasped all of the aspects. Furthermore, the writing, although good, is convoluted with a lot of repetitions of certain actions (people were slouching in door frames, or rubbing their faces with their palms,…) – this might have been added out of the final version, though.

1/5 Harpy Eagles for at least trying to write a Little Red Riding Hood retelling that’s not YA.

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

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