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Review – The Fire Opal

The Fire Opal, YA Historical Fantasy by Regina McBride

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

The Fire Opal is a fairy tale. Not sure if it’s a retelling or simply told in a sort of longform style of a fairy tale. It’s written in a dry, generally somber manner, yet is quite beautifully poetic. The story also strikes a compelling balance between stark pragmatism of historical fiction and the wistfulness of  a fantasy quest. However, I would recommend it more to people who like reading Andrew Lang’s fairy books or Grim and Perrault than to those who enjoy retellings. Reading it put me in mind of Koschei the Deathless.

Like a fairy tale, not everything is elaborated upon or given a firm foundation. The main character makes obvious mistakes because that’s what fairy tale protagonists do, and she also receives an absurd number of magical items. There’s a romance, but it’s completely bloodless as well as boneless. She meets Fransisco, a Spanish sailor, falls in love immediately, and yearns for him forever after.

The major downside for me is that it’s ultimately pretty forgettable. It’s a swift, smooth enough read, but I actually had to go back and reread bits before finishing because they’d failed to stick in my mind. Two stars means “it was okay,” and I certainly would tell anyone interested to check it out.

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Review – The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree, Historical Fantasy by Nicola Cornick

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alison and Mary are linked across time, both struggling with their own present troubles as well as tragically weighed down by the past. Alison moreso than Mary, but they are both orphans. Being touched by the supernatural only seems to complicate things, though Alison is a sharp survivor who turns it to her advantage, and Mary eventually comes to accept it in herself.

I am an extremely soft mark for this book. On more than one point. Time travel appeals to everyone. I don’t see how it can fail to do so. We all have things we wish undone, or we feel displaced and wish for a brighter better future, or even a simpler past. (Although much as I love history, I don’t believe the past was ever simpler or easier than the present day.)

I’ve always loved the phrase, “the past is a different country.” For all that the two women’s accounts take place in the same geographical country, they are in very different places. That juxtaposition serves to show how much they have in common as the story progresses. Particularly when the action cranks up in the latter third, when answers come in a satisfying avalanche.

Although Mary is resilient, wispy, and delightfully self-aware, Alison is my favourite. She’s strong and smart enough to know that being nice is a luxury that she can’t afford. Consumed by the loss of her son and living in an impossible emotional situation, the fact that she can keep going is inspiring.

There’s a continuous theme of yearning for things that have passed, or simply wishing for them to have gone differently or contributed to a better present. Six or so years after my RA diagnosis, I still find myself prey to these sorts of thoughts. This book portrays the emotions involved in a beautifully genuine way, while anchoring itself and everyone involved in the reality that one cannot undo anything. Acceptance is the true goal.

The Phantom Tree is a lovely piece of historical fiction generously coloured by the supernatural elements. It feels true, which is one of the things that makes this genre is so intriguing.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Pugs of the Frozen North

Pugs of the Frozen North, funny Fantasy by Philip Reeve, illustrations by Sarah McIntyre

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thus far, my experience with Philip Reeve has mainly been reading the Larklight series two or three times. This is also a charming book full of confidently offbeat characters and a realistic sense of the importance friendship, belonging, and doing the right thing have to the target audience.

Shipwrecked by the sudden freezing of the sea, Shen finds himself alone and saddled with 66 pugs that the captain had said would sell in like hot pies. He finds the Po of Ice, formerly the Post Office where he meets Sika. A misunderstanding or two later, the two embark on the Race to the Top of the World, where the winner will gain their heart’s desire.

This book is best read to/with kids who don’t question the logic of everything and who enjoy random silly things for the sheer awesome factor. Things like shrinksnow and yetis who eat pasta made from snow and hate to wash up. The other racers are a good mix of characters, such as the fashionable Mitzi, the robot-building scientist, and the beleaguered butler serving the nasty entitled son of the last winner. My favourite is Helga, the bearded woman who is kind and pragmatic, and who prefers Winter and the cold.

The illustrations are cute and the message at the end is suitably warming without being kitschy. This book would make a good gift for just about anyone, child or adult.

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Review – Foxheart

Foxheart, Middle Grade Fantasy by Claire Legrand

Series: Foxheart #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I love everything Claire Legrand writes. I love her ideas—this is a story about a witch in a time-travel loop who wants to be a master thief—and I love her characters. But most of all, I love that she so clearly has fun as a writer. There is a chapter called “The Most Stupid of All the Boys, Ever.” This book is funny, sweet, exciting, and all around  delightful.

At first intentionally nameless to the point of being called Girl, a grey-haired orphan grows up in a convent where no one is very kind to her. It probably doesn’t help that she is prone to pranks and grudges. She is called Pig and Witch as well as Girl, and her only friend is a little yellow dog she named Fox.

After the convent is attacked by a magical assailant who might be the vaunted Wolf-King who hunts witches, Girl flees with a mind to becoming the best thief in the Star Lands. At first, it looks like this is the path the story will travel—she takes up the name Quicksilver and meets a hapless boy whose parents are thieves but currently in a magical coma, and the two strike a deal to be thieves together—but then an old woman appears who has a dog just like Fox (but much older) and who knows Quicksilver’s real name. Things get questy from there.

Legrand is fearless in exploring bad things that can happen and in following through with the consequences. Her characters endure, survive, and learn that apologising doesn’t magically fix everything. If someone loses a leg or dies in a Legrand book, they get a prosthetic or stay dead, respectively. Maybe I’ve just read too many authors who love their characters too much, but that feels almost novel in Fantasy. …pun not intended.

Quicksilver is an incredibly active protagonist. For all that she is precisely the sort of feisty redheaded little girl that on might think they’ve seen many times, she is also flawed—slow to forgive, mean, vain—and vulnerable. It isn’t often that I see a child orphan character who actually carries the emotional baggage of that state. Usually it’s just to cut down on the number of extraneous adult characters. Thanks to the strong agency of its main character as well as the aforementioned fearlessness of the writer, twists in the narrative aren’t relegated solely to shocking reveals. Things change, dramatic action is taken.

Reading this book reminded me why I love Middle Grade Fiction in general and Claire Legrand in particular.

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Review – Grayling’s Song

Grayling’s Song, Middle Grade Historical Fantasy by Karen Cushman

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

I think this is half what I wanted Frogkisser to be. The two aren’t similar beyond having a young female protagonist who goes on a road trip with a motley crew to deal with a larger than life antagonist. In this case, the antagonist is technically more larger than life. (Is that grammatically possible?) Too small a point of comparison to help much in deciding whether or not to read it. Whatever, the characters are awesome and it’s a nice simple quest with some roadblocks they have to think their way through and around.

Grayling is the daughter of wise woman Hannah Strong, ordered about and wishing for some time to herself. She gets it when their home burns down and Hannah is rooted to the ground, slowly turning into a tree. Grayling must gather other magic practitioners like her mother for their help in finding Hannah’s grimoire, which hopefully contains the solution.

The others who answer Grayling’s call are motley indeed. An old weather witch who can’t use lightning to fry people, a sullen girl named Pansy, an enchantress who is a literal narcissist, and a mouse. The mouse is my favourite. He gains the ability to speak and shift shapes, whereupon Grayling names him Pook. He reminds me of Killer the rabbit (Calling on Dragons) without being nebbish and obnoxious.

Seriously, Pook should be enough for anyone to check this out. The origin for his “powers” is funny, and his loyalty to Grayling is sweet and endearing. If Disney mascots were more like Pook, they wouldn’t be phasing them out of the formula.

For such a short book, there’s a twisty plot. Grayling is resourceful and clever, and her allies aren’t always helpful. I wasn’t completely surprised by the full antagonist reveal and the ending is a bit too open for me, but it’s still a good quest story with a great main character who matured into an even better one.

As one might expect from Cushman, the writing is excellent and the dialogue is so perfectly old English that it makes the setting with or without description. She does Historical Fiction as if it is a way of life—with passion and brilliant execution. This is a book I’d like to see get a movie adaptation.

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Review – The Starlit Wood

The Starlit Wood, an Anthology of Fairy Tale Retellings edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Trigger warnings for rape and drug use.

This is probably the first multi author anthology I have read without skipping any of the stories. I didn’t like all of them equally, and I don’t believe I liked any two of them in the same way. However, they all manage to be exactly what I hoped—new fairy tales.

While there is obviously variation in tone, all of the stories adhere to the smokey baseline of mystical wonder. Even the tragic and the horrifying. Not everything mystical is something a body might want to encounter.

Some of the fairy tales used as inspiration are obvious, either right away or near the end. Others are either subtle or vague. It was kind of fun to guess while reading. There were only one or two fairy tales I didn’t know in their original form.

The writing styles run a range of poetic to humorous, with some fever dream wackiness that I admit could get dull or annoying. The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest was charming if silly, while Even the Crumbs were Delicious just reminds me of Kissing the Buddha’s Feet minus the fun of playing a game. And with less engaging characters.

This collection is worth at least a trip to the library for the truly standout stories. In the Desert Like a Bone, Seasons of Glass and Iron, Giants in the Sky, Reflected, and Spinning Silver. There are others that were good, but these struck me as the best, each in a different way. I heard somewhere that Spinning Silver might be extended or adapted into a full-length novel, but I could be misremembering. It’d be cool, though. Giants in the Sky made me laugh aloud, which was a desperately needed rhythm. It comes in not long after Some Wait, an upsetting take on The Pied Piper.

How I even came to read this book is a story in itself. I’m enrolled in my local library’s “Library at Your Door” program. Disabled library patrons request materials using the library’s website (or have them chosen by liaison) and receive them by post. I don’t remember requesting this book, and I’ve never had my books picked out for me. Yet one day it came in a purple post bag along with The Glass Town Game.

Spooky, I thought. And that’s the perfect sort of atmosphere in which to read this. A little unsure, questioning one’s memories. It’s a good book to read in the dark with a torch.

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Review – Mask of Shadows

Mask of Shadows, YA Fantasy by Linsey Miller

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is the best book I’ve read this year!

If I were speaking aloud, I’d have to leave it at that. Because if I were speaking, anything further would just be gibbering happiness, the ultimate in Good Book Noises.

Luckily, I’m typing. I was sold on the premise alone, and it helps that the cover is gorgeous. A gender fluid thief competing to become an elite assassin in order to mete out revenge on behalf of their entire country? I may have literally shouted, “Sign me up!” When I was approved for a NetGalley ARC, there was a preview of the gibbering happiness. So here’s my honest review.

Sal is an amazing character. Not only a wonderful representation of a woefully underrepresented character type, but also one of the most complex vengeance-seeking characters of any I’ve seen. Growing up gender fluid myself, I wish I’d had a character like Sal to look to back then. (Mostly happy with “she” now, but I lost count of the times I whispered, “I know that feel,” to myself.) Sal is also awesomely intelligent and capable. It’s a joy to see them think through each conflict and triumph despite, at times, insane odds.

The supporting cast of characters is also quite good. I loved Maud, the servant assigned to Sal during the auditions, and Lady Elise is fun as both a teacher and a love interest. The rest of the elite assassins, the Left Hand, managed to be distinct without losing any of their mystique. Most impressively, the other auditioners didn’t just blend together. I’ve read the Hunger Games and some of Battle Royale, and neither of those books made the faceless competitors even seem like stand-ins for people. In Mask of Shadows, everyone is somebody, even if they don’t survive.

A lot of characters don’t survive. But every death has weight, and Sal isn’t indifferent to them.

The world-building in this book is tremendous and also effective. There’s internal logic and consistency. Magic was drained from the world to stop deadly shadows, and magic does not mysteriously/suspiciously return or work sporadically. It’s gone, so it’s gone. Although the world is expansive and complex, there are no eye-rolling info dumps. There is a timeline/history at the back of the book. Even that has some story weight.

This book seriously has a little bit of everything. There’s sorrow, ambition, death, clever manoeuvring, friendships, careful joy, love, political intrigue, personal agendas, fighting for one’s right to personal expression, sultry writing of poetry ink on skin, and hope.

I honestly can’t see anything else I read this year topping this book. I rarely reread anymore–not with 50 books on my To Be Read Before August list–but this book will be the exception.

(As I said in the review, I received an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)