Enchantress from the Stars ~ Sylvia Engdahl

  • Title: Enchantress from the Stars
  • Author: Sylvia Engdahl
  • Series: Elana #1
  • Genre: Fantasy, YA
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  Elana, a member of an interstellar civilization on a mission to a medieval planet, becomes the key to a dangerous plan to turn back an invasion. How can she help the Andrecians, who still believe in magic and superstition, without revealing her own alien powers? At the same time, Georyn, the son of an Andrecian woodcutter, knows only that there is a dragon in the enchanted forest, and he must defeat it. He sees Elana as the Enchantress from the Stars who has come to test him, to prove he is worthy. One of the few science fiction books to win a Newbery Honor, this novel will enthrall teenage and adult readers.

Review:  This sci-fi book is simultaneously incredibly naïve and incredibly arrogant. It describes a clash of three cultures, each in a different stage of social and scientific development.

The Federation is a highly evolved, space-faring civilization. They’re so evolved, they are telepathic. They don’t wage war or conquer the less-developed societies. Instead, they travel among the populated worlds and study them. The protagonist, a student Elana, belongs to this society of peaceful explorers. Their mandate dictates that they can’t interfere in the others’ progress, to the point of rather dying than disclosing information.

The second on the scale of techno-development is the Empire. They are just starting to explore the stars and they are quite military, set on colonization of as many planets as possible. Everyone less developed than they are is considered sub-human. One of the characters, Jarel, is a young medical officer with the Empire expedition, launched onto the planet of Andrecia. He is the doubting type – he isn’t sure species less developed should be considered sub-human but he isn’t openly rebellious either. He is just brooding most of the pages dedicated to him   

And then there is Andrecia. Its society is feudal, with no technology. For them, the machines the Empire employs to clear the land for their colony are dragons, driven by evil. Perhaps their point of view is not too far off. Some Earth citizens think so too. One of the protagonists, Georyn, belongs to this civilization. He resolves to perform a heroic deed – kill the ‘dragon’ – and Elana and her crew  are set on helping him to drive the dragon (aka the Empire colonists) off Andrecia – for the good of Andrecia, I presume.

But what methods could they use without revealing themselves? They decide to utilize Georyn’s belief in magic to outwit the Empire, to hoax the new colonists into leaving this particular planet. The Federation explorers are also pretty willing to sacrifice anyone, from their own society or from any other, to achieve their goals. Lives are worthless to them compared to their lofty principles.

They pull Georyn’s strings like experienced puppeteers, and even Elana, who is falling in love with the young man, obeys her captain’s decrees and plays the role of an ‘enchantress from the stars’, granting Georyn some ‘magical’ wishes and assigning him pretty harrying tasks. He is a pawn to her commands, but the poor schmuck believes in her magic anyway.

There are no ‘nice’ persons in this story, except maybe Georyn, although he is described as a pretty dense yokel who accepts as absolute dictum anything his beloved enchantress tells him. He doesn’t question her pronouncements. He doesn’t try to discover the truth. His side of the story resembles an original fairy tale – the youngest son of a poor woodcutter, Disney style. The enchantress says ‘jump’ – he jumps.

Elana does have doubts, kudos to her, but they are more growing pangs than a serious disagreement with her elders. Deep inside, she’s convinced that her Federation is the only one that’s right and good. She is ready to die for her society doctrines. I’m not sure I agree with the Federation and their haughty, idealistic views of the lesser civilizations. That’s why I don’t think I like Elana much. I think she is a silly girl, ready to become a martyr for silly reasons.   

The Empire representatives also act surprisingly silly, almost senseless. Why would they believe the Federation’s childish trickery, played by Georyn? It’s unexplainable to me. They shouldn’t have, and they wouldn’t in reality. Their behavior is illogical from start to end, playing to the author’s ideology instead of the realistic worldview.

I know the book was written in 1970, but its year of publication doesn’t excuse its primitive political ideas or the simplicity of its characters. The writing is good though, beautiful. And the story is probably okay, if its readers are 13 or about. But for me, a jaded reader, it feels slightly out of whack.

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The Second Mango ~ Shira Glassman

  • Title: The Second Mango
  • Author: Shira Glassman
  • Genre: YA Fantasy
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga Godim
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  Queen Shulamit never expected to inherit the throne of the tropical land of Perach so young. At twenty, grief-stricken and fatherless, she’s also coping with being the only lesbian she knows after her sweetheart ran off for an unknown reason. Not to mention, she’s the victim of severe digestive problems that everybody think she’s faking. When she meets Rivka, an athletic and assertive warrior from the north who wears a mask and pretends to be a man, she finds the source of strength she needs so desperately.

Unfortunately for her, Rivka is straight, but that’s okay — Shulamit needs a surrogate big sister just as much as she needs a girlfriend. Especially if the warrior’s willing to take her around the kingdom on the back of her dragon in search of other women who might be open to same-sex romance. The real world outside the palace is full of adventure, however, and the search for a royal girlfriend quickly turns into a rescue mission when they discover a temple full of women turned to stone by an evil sorcerer.

Review:  I must be flaky. I started a couple of serious, classical fantasy books and couldn’t finish them. The writing in each one was superb, the themes deep, the characters developed, but I got bored. Then I started this little novel and was enchanted. It reads easily and fast, it’s charming and innocent. Despite its multiple writing flaws, I enjoyed it.

The story is supposedly YA, but I think it’s more suited for middle grade. The heroine, Queen Shulamit, is 20, according to the text, but she behaves very immature for that age, more like an innocent 14.

A kind and intelligent girl with lots of insecurities and food allergies, she is a lesbian and she is searching for someone to accept her as she is. She is paired with a female warrior Rivka, who is posing as a man. With Rivka as her bodyguard, Shulamit embarks on a journey to find a life partner – another lesbian girl who would love her.

A rather shallow goal for a fantasy quest, but the story leads these two unlikely partners on a different, tangential trip – to discover who they are.

The narration and the characters are simplistic, with no depth, reminiscent of a fairy tale, complete with a moral in the end. The world building is naïve and minimalist like a primitivism painting, but humor embroider every blatant statement, and the author’s tong-in-cheek approach to her characters and situations allows the reader to forget the imperfections of this book and concentrate on its attractive qualities.  

One of those is its Jewish undertones – a rarity in the genre. The names, the cultural references, even certain words breathe Jewish, both Hebrew and Yiddish. As a Jewish writer myself, I find this refreshing and admirable.

Another asset of this book is its protagonists Shulamit and Rivka. A lesbian, idealistic girl and an older woman with a tragic past, street-smart and cynical, they make strange road companions, more sisters than anything else, as they support each other through their various adventures.    

I also liked the author’s originality in both problems and solutions – nothing is as expected in this tale that surprisingly avoids most of the genre tropes.

The ending is a bit didactic and a bit smutty simultaneously. How did the author pull that off?

My one serious objection – the novel could benefit from better editing.

Overall – a cute and sweet story of women’s friendship. Recommended to fans of YA and MG fantasy. Lovers of serious epic fantasy – beware of shape-shifting dragons/horses/wizards!    

 

Sea of Tranquility ~ Katja Millay

  • Title: Sea of Tranquility
  • Author: Katja Millay
  • Genre: YA
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Purchased
  • Reviewed by: Mark Matthews
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  “I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.”

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.

The Sea of Tranquility is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances

Review:  GREAT BOOK!

Characters were multi-dimensional. The prose was fluid, the dialogue witty, the surprises sprinkled in perfect moments along the way. The author never mentions a gun without firing it brilliantly down the line. ( Chekhov’s Gun: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”)

All the guns go off blazing in this book, down to the last word. A character who doesn’t speak, but you don’t need her too because you want to stay trapped in her thoughts. The trauma she experienced is slowly revealed to the reader, and explains her behavior in high school. Her relationships are real, and she may be the only high schooler in the world who earns the “It’s Complicated” status on her facebook page. (the story does not say this, that’s me.)  As she notes, “People who have never been through any sort of shit always assume that they know how you should react to having your life destroyed.” 

As a runner, I loved the instances of  where running provides her some relief and some insight. It is when she runs that she meets perhaps the most important person in her life, and when she runs, she can strip down all the makeup and be close to her real self. My kindle was highlighted with some running passages:

“The first night I ever ran, I ended up throwing up all over my shoes. It was one of the best nights of my life.”
 
“…giddy with the thought of running out the past few days, pounding my aggression into the sidewalk”
 
“I want to tear down the road until I can’t breathe, until there is not enough oxygen left in the world to keep me from suffocating.”
 
 “…I have to run. It’s the only thing that keeps the frayed edges of my sanity intact.” 
 
 “..the running helps. It gives me something, or maybe more accurately, it takes something away. I don’t care. I know I depend on it too much but it’s one of the only things I can depend on. Exercise, notebooks, hate. The things that do not let me down… My mind has learned what to expect from the night I run in.” 
 
Despite some ‘soap-opery’ moments, (perhaps common to YA, of which I am not a regular reader) there’s no way I can give this less than 5 stars and two thumbs up and a recomendation and support and tell two friends and so on and so on…
 
In my never developed but should have been developed list of books that made me cry, this book would be in the top three. Yeah, I cried most of the last 10% of this one. Then again, I also cry everytime I finish a marathon.
 
Read it and weep.

Insurgent ~ Veronica Roth

  • Title: Insurgent
  • Author: Veronica Roth
  • Series: Divergent #2
  • Genre: Sci-Fi, Dystopian, YA
  • Format: Audio book
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewer: Val
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  One choice can transform you, or destroy you.

Every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves, and herself, while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.


Review:   Insurgent, the second book of the Divergent series, picks right up where Divergent left off. The factions are at war, following the massacre of much of the Abnegation faction at the hands of the hypnotized Dauntless warriors. Having stopped the attack, Tris and Four find themselves outlaws on the run.

This book was just as much of a rush to read as the first, maybe even more so. There is plenty of action, as Tris and Four face danger trying to uncover the truth about what is going on. Roth takes the political undertones even deeper, creating a delicious tension throughout the story. It is a constant struggle to sift truth from lies, or more importantly, whose truth is more compelling.

As the plot thickens, the character also become more complex. It is no longer as simple as good versus bad. Roth reveals the good intentions behind some of the terrible actions of her “bad guys”, and that good misguided “good” characters have faltered onto dark paths. I am so tempted to mention some specifics here, but I think I will let you discover that for yourself.

Tris, herself, is very conflicted throughout the story. Her actions in the previous book have her questioning what kind of person she really is and erodes some of her recently won confidence. This internal struggle results in conflict and tension between Tris and Four. There is also continued tension among Tris and her new Dauntless friends.

I will say one thing for Roth, she didn’t really hold anything back. She is telling a dark and gritty tale and she’s not afraid for bad things to happen to pack the necessary emotional punch. Roth is by no means a George R.R. Martin (who seems to kill off characters just so the reader won’t get attached), but she does not shy away from the death of a likeable character.

While the first book focused primarily on the Abnegation and Dauntless factions, Insurgent gives a closer look at Amity and Candor. Herein lies the brilliance behind Roth’s unfolding saga. Each faction has its specific social mores, which are both a strength and a weakness when isolated without divergent thinking (um, yeah, guess that explains the series theme in a nutshell). Another theme throughout this book is how far people will go to avoid accepting a harsh reality out of fear, often failing to act and thus making them fall victim to that fear.

The cover for Insurgent is equally eye-catching as the Divergent cover. This time, it features the faction symbol for Amity with the Chicago skyline at the bottom. The color scheme and layout are complimentary to the Divergent cover, clearly identifying the series.

There is one bad thing about this book that I do not like so much . . . that I will have to wait until October for the third and final book of the series!

City of Ashes ~ Cassandra Clare

  • Title: City of Ashes
  • Author: Cassandra Clare
  • Series: The Mortal Instruments #2
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
  • Format: Audiobook
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 2 out of 5

Description:  Clary Fray just wishes that her life would go back to normal. But what’s normal when you’re a demon-slaying Shadowhunter, your mother is in a magically induced coma, and you can suddenly see Downworlders like werewolves, vampires, and faeries? If Clary left the world of the Shadowhunters behind, it would mean more time with her best friend, Simon, who’s becoming more than a friend. But the Shadowhunting world isn’t ready to let her go — especially her handsome, infuriating, newfound brother, Jace. And Clary’s only chance to help her mother is to track down rogue Shadowhunter Valentine, who is probably insane, certainly evil — and also her father.

To complicate matters, someone in New York City is murdering Downworlder children. Is Valentine behind the killings — and if he is, what is he trying to do? When the second of the Mortal Instruments, the Soul-Sword, is stolen, the terrifying Inquisitor arrives to investigate and zooms right in on Jace. How can Clary stop Valentine if Jace is willing to betray everything he believes in to help their father?

In this breathtaking sequel to City of Bones, Cassandra Clare lures her readers back into the dark grip of New York City’s Downworld, where love is never safe and power becomes the deadliest temptation.

*This review may contain spoilers.*

Review:  Cassandra Clare is back. City of Ashes is the follow-up to her fun, young adult urban fantasy adventure City of Bones. This second book of the Mortal Instruments series is everything that the first book was not, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The first book was light on teen wallowing and focused on more on their adventure through a dangerous magical world.

City of Ashes, on the other hand, is a story about a group of spoiled teens in the midst of a big ole angst fest. Clary and Jace are all angsty about their Luke and Lei sibling attraction since they still think they are brother and sister. (Clearly, at some point it will be revealed that they are not actually siblings, because otherwise, eww!) Jace is also wallowing in Vader/Valentine father drama and acting bratty because nobody believes him, because dishing up disdainful attitude is always helpful in getting others to see your point of view. Simon is battling his angst driven jealously over any attention that Clary is paying to her brother, Jace. Alec is drowning in a whole vat of youthful melodrama, struggling with his sexuality, his unrequited love for Jace, and perhaps a hidden romance? Isabelle is not so much angsting as she is rebelling against nothing. Oh, and they are aware of the magical world around them and they are trying to fight evil.

Eventually, we see some opportunities for action and adventure. However, it feel like every time a conflict arises, someone breaks out into an angst-driven monologue. How many times are they going to feel swayed by Valentine’s fanatical ranting? Really? He’s right THERE! Less talky talky, more stabby stabby. When we are not interrupting this regularly scheduled not-a-fight scene, we are flash-forwarding to the end only to experience yet another heart rending near death episode. Surely Simon’s nine live are up??? Oh, the drama!

This book is guilty of SO many fiction faux pas plot devices that I may have lost count. The top five kind of looks like this:

  1. Overreaction in place of action – like going to a werewolf bar to pick a fight because you are mad at your stepmom
  2. Overuse of the monologue – battle is raging all around us, my sweet, but let me try to convince you why my evil plan is great
  3. Logic is overrated (not sure which is my favorite example) – I hate demons SO much, that I want to rid the world of half demons by allying myself with full demons OR I know you are my sister, but will you still be my girlfriend and we can keep it a secret?
  4. Smart characters make stupid decisions – The bad guy is looking for someone like ME? Why then, let me run off into the night alone and take back alleys so he can capture me!
  5. And the worst plot device used in this book is . . . Love triangles, or in this case knots – A hot werewolf girl is in love with me, but I’m in love with you. You are in love with your brother. He loves you, too, but you can’t be together, obviously. His teenage foster brother is in love with him, but dating a 300 year old wizard who may be in love him (eww). The foster sister seems to be in love with herself. Let’s not even bother with the “adults.” It boggles the mind.

I pretty much liked the characters in the first book. Well, I didn’t dislike them, at least. However, in City of Ashes I think that everyone could use a swift boot to the head. Jace spends the book sneering and throwing abuse at others, meanwhile whining that no one believes in him. Clary is trying to martyr herself for every bad thing that happens to her in between bouts of saying really nasty things to people. Simon acts like a pouty douche who seems to have lost at least 30 IQ points since that last book. I could go on. Suffice it to say that Valentine wiping them all out starts to look appealing by the end of the book.

As for the conclusion, Clare serves up an ending so ambiguous that when examined you realize that there really wasn’t closure to any of the plot threads of this book. In fact, if you remove all of the angst and over emoting, I think that this book contributes maybe a single chapter, two at the most, of relevant information that moves that series plot arc forward.

On the positive side, the cover art for City of Ashes is fantastic. In keeping with the theme of the first cover, it features the city skyline with an otherworldly teen figure rising from the behind the city. This time the figure represents Clary with an almost flaming quality to her red hair. Too bad the contents of the book do not live up to the promise of the cover.

Now, I am left with a decision. Do I give the series another chance? I DID like the first book. However, my eyes are still sore from the number of times I rolled them while reading this book. Perhaps I’ll give it some time, let my eye muscles recover, and see how I feel with a little distance. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder. We shall see.

City of Bones ~ Cassandra Clare

  • Title: City of Bones
  • Author: Cassandra Clare
  • Series: The Mortal Instruments #1
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
  • Format: Hardback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder – much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air.

It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing – not even a smear of blood – to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy?

This is Clary’s first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It’s also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk.

Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace’s world with a vengeance, when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know…

Review:  I’ve long had my eye on City of Bones. The cover is eye catching and the plot sounds interesting. My lingering hesitance is part of my usual dilemma, will the story be more adventure or angst. With the movie release upon us, it is time to make that decision . . . to read or not read?

I am glad that I chose to read. There are certainly hints of teen angst here and there, but the story is directed mostly by adventure and world-building. Hurrah! I admit that the plot is on the predictable side, but the entertaining manner in which the story unfolds makes it almost possible to overlook.

The basic premise is one we’ve seen before, kind of an Alice through the Looking Glass kind of tale. The world-building has elements that make it unique enough to hold the readers interest. The story follows Clary, an impetuous teen whose mother goes missing just when she starts to see inexplicable things. She is seeing demons to be precise. It turns out that everywhere. Fortunately for her, she meets a band of teenage demon hunters who grudgingly agree to help her find her mom and figure out what is happening to her.

I am not sure that it makes sense that a group of teen demon hunters are the only ones around to protect the city for the duration of the book. Reader have to make a leap of faith to just accept this a move on. Because of their youthful exuberance, the teen characters are fun, if one-dimensional. Some of them have secrets, and I’m not telling! I want to tell you, truly I do, but I think it would be more fun it you discover them on your own.

My favorite character, Magnus Bane, is a minor character of importance to the story. He is extremely powerful and totally unapologetic. The ambiguity of his character allows Ms. Clare a vehicle through which she can deliver truth, in a crazy-cool kind of way. I also love Valentine as a villain. He is psychotically brilliant and totally arrogant. Oh, and in the movie he’s played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Hello, sexy calling!).

Clare relies more on intrigue rather than action to move the story forward. This is not to say that there are no good action scenes, there are. It is just the mystery is solved more Sherlock style, piecing together clues gained through investigation.

This is a good first book to the series. It was a solid introduction to the characters and the Clare’s alternate world. The resolution to the primary plot is strong enough to give closure, yet there are there are plenty of tantalizing open threads to entice the reader back for more. So, go on now, dear reader. I have another book (City of Ashes) to read.