Review: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows

Manifold Worlds, Book 1; published in 2016; 496 pages.  ★★★★★

“Some lies are useful, not because they trick us into thinking that the world is different, but because they show us that it could be.”

Summary:
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

(From Goodreads)

An Accident Of Stars is one of those books that, honestly, I always knew I would love.  I put off reading it for far too long, because portal fantasy isn’t a trope that particularly appeals to me, but… it’s Foz Meadows, and I’ve been following Meadows’ reviewing and writing on fandom and culture for years now.  Her first book is just as brilliant, incisive, thoughtful, and compelling as I always expected it to be, and I confess – I’m more interested in portal fantasy as a trope after reading it.

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Review: Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

Passenger, Book 2; published in 2017; 532 pages.  ★★★★☆

“Do you believe in destiny, then?  That something deserves to exist, just because it once was?”
“I believe in humanity, in peace, in the natural order of things,” he said.  “I believe that the only way to balance the power of what we can do is with sacrifice.  Accepting that we cannot possess the things and people not meant for us, we cannot control every outcome; we cannot cheat death.  Otherwise there’s no meaning to any of it.”

Summary:
All Etta Spencer wanted was to make her violin debut when she was thrust into a treacherous world where the struggle for power could alter history. After losing the one thing that would have allowed her to protect the Timeline, and the one person worth fighting for, Etta awakens alone in an unknown place and time, exposed to the threat of the two groups who would rather see her dead than succeed. When help arrives, it comes from the last person Etta ever expected—Julian Ironwood, the Grand Master’s heir who has long been presumed dead, and whose dangerous alliance with a man from Etta’s past could put them both at risk.

Meanwhile, Nicholas and Sophia are racing through time in order to locate Etta and the missing astrolabe with Ironwood travelers hot on their trail. They cross paths with a mercenary-for-hire, a cheeky girl named Li Min who quickly develops a flirtation with Sophia. But as the three of them attempt to evade their pursuers, Nicholas soon realizes that one of his companions may have ulterior motives.

As Etta and Nicholas fight to make their way back to one another, from Imperial Russia to the Vatican catacombs, time is rapidly shifting and changing into something unrecognizable… and might just run out on both of them.

(From Goodreads)

There are an awful lot of trilogies out there, especially in young adult books, which really don’t need to be trilogies.  After The Edge of the Abyss and Wayfarer, though, I’m no longer sure that duologies are the solution.  While Wayfarer was still a strong and well-crafted novel, the pacing of the first half of the story dragged badly, and many new story elements were added in a rushed and haphazard-feeling manner.  It wasn’t bad, per se, but it could have been better, and a little more pagetime might have done a lot to improve things.  Say… another book?

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Review: Of Fire And Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Published in 2016; 389 pages; ★★★★★

My daily life remained a rehearsal for the moment I met my betrothed, and my secret seemed like a trivial thing.  I believed that as long as I followed my training, nothing could go wrong.

But some things are stronger than years of lessons.

The draw of fire.

A longing for freedom.

Or a girl on a red horse.

Summary:
Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

(From Goodreads)

Let’s not beat around the bush:  Of Fire And Stars is right up my alley.  Princesses falling in love with each other, horses, elemental magic, a sprinkling of classic worldbuilding tropes, and a dash of sociopolitical commentary – it’s a recipe for a light, enjoyable read that I was sure to love.  Looking back on it with a bit more distance, I can see a few weak spots (most of which could have been negated had the book simply been longer) but overall, this book was so fantastically enjoyable that I choose to give it five stars anyway.

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Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Wayward Children, Book 1; published in 2016; 173 pages.   ★★★☆☆

You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.

Summary:
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Guests
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.
(From Goodreads)

Every Heart a Doorway is a staggeringly well-loved book.  I’ve heard raving about it from friends and from authors I follow, and it’s been widely talked up in the asexual community as a shining example of textual ace representation.  So… it took me a day, a bit of rereading, and some talking-through to realize that I… don’t… love it.

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Revisiting: Fire by Kristin Cashore

Graceling Realm, Book 2; published in 2009; 480 pages.  ★★★★☆

The stars always eased her lonesomeness.  She thought of them as beautiful creatures, burning and cold like her; each solitary, and bleak, and silent like her.

Summary:
It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she had the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City, The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

(From Goodreads)

I’m so glad I’m rereading this series.  I had a vague memory of Graceling and Fire, and remembered liking the latter much better, but I didn’t recall – or maybe, seven years ago, never noticed – the complexity of Kristin Cashore’s themes or the way these two books complement each other by approaching the same issue of self-determination from different angles.  It’s… fascinating, and kind of beautiful, and looking at it as an adult I find myself loving this series, much to my own surprise.

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Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Published in 2014; 446 pages; ★★★★★

“You cannot keep change from happening, Lord Pashavar,” Maia said sympathetically, and Lord Pashavar flapped a hand at him to get on with things.

Summary:
A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

(From Goodreads)

The Goblin Emperor is… an experience.  It’s the kind of book that’s so wholly absorbing that it becomes a struggle to review, because no matter how I try to articulate how I loved it, I feel like I just can’t do it justice.  Additionally, Addison flouts many of the fantasy genre’s conventions of plot structure and character relationships, so it doesn’t have the same sort of ‘hook’ that many of its companions on the shelf do, and… I almost feel like all I can say is, “Just take my word for it and read this.”  But this book deserves more, so I’m gonna try to do better than that.  Bear with me.

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Revisiting: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling Realm, Book 1; published in 2008; 471 pages.  ★★★☆☆

A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster.  When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster?  Did it become something else?

Summary:
Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight – she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po’s friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…

(From Goodreads)

Graceling is a reread for me, but one that still managed to be better than I expected.  It was a sensation in the teen library group I was a part of in high school, in no small part because Cashore’s protagonist, Katsa, is a sharp contrast to Bella Swan.  It wasn’t until years later, long after I had read both Graceling and its companion, Fire, that I encountered criticism of Katsa as a Strong Female Character whose strength derives from being as masculine as possible.  Returning to the series with the intent to finally read Bitterblue, book 3, I expected Graceling to be cringe-worthy, didactic, and ham-handed.  And I did find myself cringing – but not about Katsa.  In fact, I found Katsa’s psychology and development to be the most nuanced part of the book.

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