Saturday, December 29, 2012

Iron Hearted Violet - Kelly Barnhill

Title: Iron Hearted Violet
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Little Brown and Company, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 424 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: December 17, 2012
Finished: December 29, 2012

From the inside cover:

In most fairy tales, the princess is beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. This isn't most fairy tales.

Princess Violet is plain, reckless, and quite possibly too clever for her own good. Particularly when it comes to telling stories. One day she and her best friend, Demetrius, stumble upon a hidden room and find a peculiar book. A forbidden book. It tells a story of an evil being-called the Nybbas-imprisoned in their own world. The story cannot be true-not really. But then, the whispers start. Violet and Demetrius, along with an ancient scarred dragon, may hold the key to the Nybbas' triumph...or its demise. It all depends on how they tell the story. After all, stories make their own rules.

Iron Hearted Violet is the story of a princess unlike any other. It is a story of the last dragon in existence, deathly afraid of its own reflection. Above all, it is a story about the power of stories, our belief in them, and how one enchanted tale changed the course of an entire kingdom.

I love stories which touch on the power of stories, so Iron Hearted Violet was a must-read for me. Aside from a few minor issues, I really enjoyed the novel and think it's a wonderful example of a well-done middle grade fantasy.

First off, I loved having Cassian the storyteller as the narrator. I'm so used to a first-person narration or your run of the mill third person omniscient that it was refreshing to see an actual character as the third person narrator. He has a unique voice with a self-deprecating sense of humour, so his narration is very entertaining to read. It was a little awkward at times though, Cassian obviously doesn't see everything so his credibility is questionable (I assumed he gathered information from everyone after the fact), and half the time you forget that it is actually Cassian narrating so when he's referred to by name by Violet or Demetrius it's a little jarring.

I liked the themes of the power of stories and how being a 'true princess' isn't about beauty. Stories are rightfully shown to have power based on people's belief in them, and Violet spends most of the novel learning that even though she doesn't look anything like a stereotypical princess (and is actually described as ugly), that she embodies every aspect of a 'real princess'. I did have a beef with the illustrations though (done by an illustrator, not the author), Violet is described as being quite ugly and having chipped teeth, mismatched eyes, freckles, super frizzy hair, and a pug nose. She's drawn as a cute and perky girl with awesome curly/wavy hair. I understand that no one wants to see a truly ugly character in pictures, but I believe in staying true to content, and Violet's homely appearance and not fitting into that princess ideal is a big part of the story and the illustrations should reflect that.

I liked how the Nybbas was actually disturbing and scary, something you don't see too often in a villan/antagonist in a middle grade book. I also liked that there was no love interest angle with Demetrius and Violet, but considering it's middle grade I would have been severely disappointed if they had taken that angle as opposed to the innocent friendship aspect.

A few small issues, but overall an excellent novel with enchanting writing, wonderful themes, and endearing characters.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, my issue with the illustrations is how Violet isn't portrayed as described, but the actual cover is nice and dynamic and not typical at all (both in terms of images and colour scheme).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Crown of Embers - Rae Carson

Title: The Crown of Embers (sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns)
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (Harper Collins), 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 410 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 7, 2012
Finished: December 12, 2012

From the inside cover:

Elisa is a hero.

She led her people to victory over a terrifying sorcerous army. Her place as the country's ruler should be secure. But it isn't.

Her enemies come at her like ghosts in a dream, from foreign realms and even from within her own court. And her destiny as the chosen one has not yet been fulfilled.

To conquer the power she bears, once and for all, Elisa must follow a trail of long-forgotten-and forbidden-clues, from the deep, hidden catacombs of her own city to the treacherous seas. With her go a one-eyed spy, a traitor, and the man whom-despite everything-she is falling in love with.

If she's lucky, she will return from this journey. But there will be a cost.

After reading The Girl of Fire and Thorns last year, I loved it so much I knew I'd be reading the sequels. The Crown of Embers thankfully doesn't disappoint, in fact, I think I liked it even better than the first book.

The Crown of Embers takes place where the first book left off: Elisa is queen after Alejandro dies and names her the ruler, but confidence in her reign as queen is waning. Elisa is targeted numerous times both by members of her own court as well as Inviernos. After discovering an exiled Invierno hiding out in an underground settlement under the city who tells them of a divine source of power that only bearers of the Godstone can access, Elisa and her closest companions go on a journey to obtain this source of power to secure her position as queen.

I loved that this newest installment had even more political intrigue than the previous book, and it's rife with issues such as misogyny and monarchy, strategy, palace politics; it was a joy to read such an intelligent premise.

Elisa is once again one of my favourite YA female protagonists; she's strong, cunning, intelligent and compassionate, but is still vulnerable enough to make her a realistic 17-year-old. I also love her sarcastic sense of humour, it was a wonderful way to balance an otherwise serious novel. The other characters are well-developed and enjoyable too; readers see another side of Ximena, Mara gets more exposure especially in the latter half of the book, Hector is just plain wonderful, and I really enjoyed having Storm in the group (his interactions with Elisa were hilarious).

One thing I have to give the author credit for is the romance, which has a bigger role in this installment than in the previous one. The relationship between Elisa and Hector is wonderfully portrayed first of all, a great example of showing versus telling. The relationship is grounded in mutual respect and admiration, doesn't happen instantly like in most YA stories, and is incredibly mature (emotional maturity, not sexually).

There aren't enough words to express how much love I have for this book, so just read it, it really is awesome. The third book comes out next year and I will be impatiently waiting for it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Keeping consistent with the first book, there's the nondescript background with the Godstone front and center, with Elisa's face inside. I like the colour scheme, lots of blues and purples with a bit of green.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Juliet Immortal - Stacey Jay

Title: Juliet Immortal
Author: Stacey Jay
Publisher: Ember (Random House), 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 1, 2012
Finished: December 6, 2012

From the back of the book:

Juliet Capulet didn't take her own life. She was murdered by the one person she trusted most, her new husband, Romeo Montague, who made the sacrifice to ensure his own immortality. But Romeo didn't anticipate that Juliet would be granted eternal life as well, and would become an agent for the Ambassadors of Light.

For seven hundred years, Juliet has struggled to preserve romantic love and the lives of the innocent, while Romeo has fought for the dark side, seeking to destroy the human heart. Until now.

Now Juliet has found forbidden love, and Romeo, O Romeo, will do everything in his power to destroy their happiness.

After reading the summary of the book I knew I had to read it. I'm a high school English teacher, and Romeo and Juliet is the Shakespeare play our Grade 11s read; so when I saw a book about the idea that the typical Romeo and Juliet story is a complete lie and said book actually pulled it off, I fell in love.

The premise here is that the Romeo and Juliet story we all know is mostly true up to a point. Romeo went to the dark side (the Mercenaries) and killed Juliet in exchange for immortal life, but at the moment of her death Juliet is given a chance to work for the good side (the Ambassadors) and is granted the same deal. Both are reincarnated every few generations; Juliet tries to save the lives of a pair of soul mates, and Romeo tries to get one to kill the other in the name of love.

In present day Southern California, Juliet now occupies the body of Ariel Dragland and tries to not only fix her life to a certain degree but also to make sure soulmates Gemma and Ben stay together and don't die at the hands of Romeo. But things get complicated when Ben falls in love with Ariel/Juliet and she begins to question the purpose of all she's doing.

Aside from the unique take on the typical Romeo and Juliet story, I really enjoyed Juliet's character and how the story really is a homage to true love and personal growth and acceptance. Juliet at first is angry and bitter (not to mention kick-ass) because she fell head over heels for Romeo and he screwed her over, and really, who hasn't felt that way about love at some point in their lives? Over the course of the novel, she begins to believe in love again and starts to forgive herself for the mistakes she made as a naive 14-year-old girl. The love she shares with Ben is on more equal footing and based on mutual respect, which is a good example for readers.

I loved the side-story with Ariel's life and the players in it, and especially how her mother is a realistic portrayal of a parent in YA fiction, flawed yet well-intentioned and fiercely loves her daughter. Romeo is actually well-developed and not simply an evil villain, I actually felt sorry for the poor boy at one point. Ben was lovely but I think he could've used some more time in the spotlight. Also, having the students perform West Side Story was a great piece of brilliance on the author's part.

A surprisingly enjoyable read, very unique premise with great characters and themes. I'll definitely be picking up the sequel, Romeo Redeemed, at some point.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it, the Juliet model in the red flowing dress on a rock by the ocean just fits together so well and doesn't fall into the trap of typical YA covers (close-up of a girl's face and nothing else).