Book Review: THE BELLES

23197837Title: THE BELLES
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Series: The Belles, #1
Publication Information: DisneyHyperion, 2018
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 440
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult — Fantasy
Warnings: Abuse, sexual assault
Rating: 4 Stars
Recommended For: People looking for an original fantasy, anyone who wanted more time in the Capitol in the Hunger Games trilogy.

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

(Summary from Goodreads)

THE BELLES is basically like if that Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst and the Capitol from The Hunger Games had a baby, except that baby had magical powers and was sinister and instead of food, people just wanted to be pretty. It was the best combination of beautiful and terrifying, and I loved it.

My favorite aspect of the book was the world building. Clayton’s descriptive writing made Orléans come to life for me, and I loved how effectively the question of how far is too far re: our society’s obsession with beauty was explored through this lens. The juxtaposition between the pretty setting, characters, and writing and the ugliness that appeared when the surface layers got peeled back was deployed effortlessly. On the other hand, because of the amount of exposition, the book did drag a little bit for me at points.

Another issue I had was that the romance didn’t really do it for me. It felt a little forced to me, and I think Camellia’s story would’ve been stronger without it. I much preferred the focus on her relationships with her sisters, and I hope there’s more of that in the next book.

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Book Review: EMBER

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author and read multiple drafts of the book prior to its publication. This hasn’t impacted my review at all.

EmberTitle: EMBER
Author: Anna Holmes
Series: Ember of Elyssia, #1
Publication Information: Self-Published, 2017
Format: Paperback
Pages: 341
Source: Purchased
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Warnings: Light violence (swordplay, magic), maiming
Rating: 5 stars
Recommended For: Fans of the enemies to lovers romance trope (told in dual POV!) and witty banter; fans of The Princess Bride.

The war is over. The island of Elyssia has been freed from the clutches of the Rosalian Empire, power restored to the island’s monarchy. However, after leading the Resurgence from the front, Princess Caelin now finds herself sitting and waiting more often than not. When magical prodigy Alain Flynn breaks into her palace to kidnap her, she hears of a secret slave camp—and forms a plan. Under the guise of a kidnapping, she will investigate the camp, expose the secrets, and take control of the fate of her kingdom.

(Summary from Goodreads)

So, I’ve read this book like three or four times and I’m still not sick of it, so it’s already got that going for it.

So many fantasy books are about defeating the bad guy, and then everyone goes to war to take down the aforementioned bad guy, and everyone is happy when the bad guy goes down, but we don’t get to see very often what happens after the war. What sort of rebuilding goes on? How do the new people in charge gain the trust of the people who fought against them? EMBER, refreshingly, is set during this time of rebuilding. The war has ended, and that’s where the story begins. Caelin has to figure out how to rebuild Elyssia, and how to gain the trust of the people who were on the other side in the war – since a lot of people actually supported the Rosalians. Then, there’s also the fact that, as a teenage girl, a lot of people don’t think she’s up to the task of ruling, so she has enemies inside the palace as well as outside. And, inwardly, Caelin is unsure she has what it takes to be a good ruler. SO MUCH CONFLICT.

Our other POV is Alain, a former Rosalian commander (or Prince, as they’re called) who is put into slavery – a thing Caelin’s advisers are doing behind her back – and, upon escaping his slave camp, decides to kidnap Caelin. He is one of the previously mentioned supporters of Rosalia who hates Caelin and doesn’t want to see her rule. But, all he knows is the propaganda fed to him by the Empire, and when he actually meets Caelin, he starts having conflicted feelings about her as he realizes she’s not the evil person he was always told. MORE CONFLICT.

And then, of course, there is a cast of delightful secondary characters. There’s Riley, my precious brooding child, a palace guard and Caelin’s best friend since childhood; Tressa, a centaur bounty hunter who’s got the best attitude in the world; August, who I just want to hug every time he shows up; and Gavroth, who is The Best. Even the villains are a delight to read, even though they’re terrible people.

Blast from the Past: OLD MAGIC

Welcome to Blast from the Past, where I reread books from my past to see how they hold up.

OldMagicTitle: OLD MAGIC
Author: Marianne Curley
Publication Information: Simon Pulse, 2002 (first published 2000)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 317
Source: Purchased
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy/Time Travel
Warnings: mentions of rape; light innuendo and violence (swordplay, magic); bullying; ableism
Rating: 3 stars
Recommended For: People who are really good at suspending disbelief in the name of being entertained by medieval time travel and the defeat of nefarious sorcerers.

Jarrod Thornton is mesmerizing, but Kate Warren doesn’t know why.

The moment the new guy walks into the room, Kate senses something strange and intense about him. Something supernatural. Her instincts are proven correct a few minutes later when, bullied by his classmates, Jarrod unknowingly conjures up a freak thunderstorm “inside” their classroom.

Jarrod doesn’t believe in the paranormal. When Kate tries to convince him that he has extraordinary powers that need to be harnessed, he only puts up with her “hocus pocus” notions because he finds her captivating. However, the dangerous, uncontrolled strengthening of his gift finally convinces Jarrod that he must take Kate’s theories seriously. Together, they embark on a remarkable journey — one which will unravel the mystery that has haunted Jarrod’s family for generations and pit the teens against immense forces in a battle to undo the past and reshape the future.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Okay, so you know how a lot of people are obsessed with Australian YA because it’s really, really good, for some reason, and it makes us wonder what’s in the water down there?

This book isn’t one of those.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining. But if you’re looking for something to fill the aching void left by having no more Melina Marchetta books to read? (I know. I’m sad, too.) Look elsewhere.

I first read OLD MAGIC in ninth grade after encountering it on the bookmobile that hung out on base near my bus stop every week. I was hooked. I ended up using my precious allowance to buy my own copy so I could read it whenever I wanted. It combined three of the things I loved most in my books: romance, history, and magic.

When I picked it up again a couple weeks, it had been at least ten years since I last read it. It didn’t really hold up. I noticed right away that the editing…left a little to be desired. There are a lot of run-on sentences. Marianne Curley LOVES commas. I had a hard time letting that go.

Also, a lot of the things I enjoyed when I was younger just seem illogical to me now. There’s a pretty serious case of insta-love in this book, not to mention Kate telling Jarrod within minutes of meeting him that he has magical powers. And then Kate was confused when Jarrod subsequently didn’t believe her and actively avoided her. In this case, I really need to side with Jarrod. Some stranger telling you you have magical powers, a thing you don’t even believe in? I’d run, too.

One thing that bothered me this go around was the fact that Jarrod kept calling Kate “crazy” and telling her she was “crazy” and “sick in the head.” There are more sensitive ways to bring up concerns about a person’s mental health, my dude. And then later, when Jarrod starts actually believing Kate about the magical powers thing? He doesn’t walk back or unpack his previous comments about Kate being “crazy” at all. They don’t get revisited or examined at all.

If you can suspend your disbelief, OLD MAGIC is entertaining. I liked the section of the book that takes place in the Middle Ages; Curley incorporates a lot of small details that makes the reader feel like they’re there. I actually wish there was more of the book that was set there, because that was more fun for me to read than the parts set in the present day. All of the magical aspects were interesting, too, and again, I wish that had been developed a little more since I’m always a nerd for magical systems.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with this reading since I loved this book so much in high school. It was still entertaining, but there were some things I noticed this time that bothered me that I just wasn’t aware of during previous readings.

Book Review: THE IRON TRIAL

IronTrialTitle: THE IRON TRIAL
Authors: Holly Black & Cassandra Clare
Narrator: Paul Boehmer
Series: Magisterium, #1
Publication Information: Scholastic/Listening Library, 2014
Source: Library (Audiobook) – student recommendation
Genre: Middle Grade – Fantasy
Warnings: Mild violence
Rating: 2 Stars
Recommended For: Younger fans of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.

Most kids would do anything to pass the Iron Trial.

Not Callum Hunt. He wants to fail.

All his life, Call has been warned by his father to stay away from magic. If he succeeds at the Iron Trial and is admitted into the Magisterium, he is sure it can only mean bad things for him.

So he tries his best to do his worst – and fails at failing.

Now the Magisterium awaits him. It’s a place that’s both sensational and sinister, with dark ties to his past and a twisty path to his future.

The Iron Trial is just the beginning, for the biggest test is still to come . . .

(Summary from Goodreads)

THE IRON TRIAL was okay. It was entertaining enough, but I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if it didn’t feel like I’ve read this story before. The characters – a trio with two boys and a girl – and the premise – characters with magical abilities going away to a school for others with their abilities and being “sorted” into “houses” – were too similar to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson for me to really LOVE this story. I think the most exciting part of the book, for me, was the twist at the end because, while I’d sensed while reading that Call was ~different~, I hadn’t managed to guess the nature of this difference.

I listened to THE IRON TRIAL on audio, and I probably enjoyed it more in this format than I would’ve in print. Paul Boehmer is very expressive, and does a great job performing all of the different character roles. As an audiobook to have on while doing other things, I think this one would be a solid pick.

Despite the fact that I personally didn’t enjoy this book, I’d still recommend it to students. I think there are a lot of elements that elementary school students would enjoy, such as adventure and friendship, and fantasy readers will probably eat it up. I think Percy Jackson lovers in particular will enjoy this one – Call is very sarcastic, so the voice is very similar.

Book Review: OF FIRE AND STARS

F&STitle: OF FIRE AND STARS
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Series: Of Fire and Stars, #1
Publication Information: Balzer + Bray, 2016
Pages: 389
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Warnings: Light violence, some sexual content
Rating: 5 stars
Recommended For: Tamora Pierce fans, people who like books with arranged marriages and/or forbidden magic, political intrigue lovers.

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.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I was really excited about this book when I first real the deal announcement, so I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed. It has some of my favorite tropes: an arranged marriage, an arranged marriage being derailed by one of the parties falling in love with someone else, forbidden magic, enemies (sort of) to lovers. And it was all done with characters I loved as well as immersive world building. So, wins all around.

There was INTRIGUE and SECRETS which are two more of my favorite things to read about. Denna has to keep her Affinity a secret, which becomes harder when her powers start leaking out of her control, not to mention people suspect something is up and she has to try even harder to hide them. There were also some shady things going on in regards to diplomatic relations with another country, and someone gets assassinated, and all of it may or may not be related to both each other and to the magic thing. And because of all of this, people spend a lot of time in libraries, which is another thing I am okay with.

I loved the romance (see: sort-of enemies to lovers). Denna and Mare had a lot of chemistry, and I thought their romance developed really naturally. I also loved that the obstacle to the two of them being together wasn’t that both of them were women, since any and all relationships in this world are acceptable and valid; instead, the obstacle was that Denna was already engaged to Mare’s brother. Which, to be honest, was way more interesting, anyway, especially since Denna didn’t actually dislike her betrothed.

I can’t wait for the next book.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite YA Fantasy Books

OMG, guys. I have no idea how this summer got away from me, but it did. I’ll do an actual ~life update~ post soon, but for now, I’m going to talk up some awesome YA fantasy books.

TTT2016

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Top Ten Favorite YA Fantasy Books

  1. The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson: My review here.
  2. STOLEN SONGBIRD by Danielle L. Jensen: Suddenly finding yourself attracted to trolls is a very confusing thing, but there you go.
  3. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas: My review here.
  4. RED QUEEN by Victoria Aveyard: Really good pacing and I’m always here for court intrigue.
  5. THE WRATH & THE DAWN by Renée Ahdieh: Beautiful world building and writing all around. I couldn’t put this one down.
  6. Lumatere Chronicles series by Melina Marchetta: My review here.
  7. Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima: My review here.
  8. THE KISS OF DECEPTION by Mary E. Pearson: This book featured one of the best love triangles I’ve ever read.
  9. THE WINNER’S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski: My review here.
  10. THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater: My review here.

Book Review: SOUNDLESS

SoundlessTitle: SOUNDLESS
Author: Richelle Mead
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Publication Information: Razorbill, 2015
Rating: 2 Stars
Recommended For: People who enjoy books that read like fairytales.
Warnings: Some kissing, but nothing that wouldn’t be appropriate for a middle school audience.

For as long as Fei can remember, no one in her village has been able to hear. Rocky terrain and frequent avalanches make it impossible to leave the village, so Fei and her people are at the mercy of a zipline that carries food up the treacherous cliffs from Beiguo, a mysterious faraway kingdom.

When villagers begin to lose their sight, deliveries from the zipline shrink. Many go hungry. Fei and all the people she loves are plunged into crisis, with nothing to look forward to but darkness and starvation.

Until one night, Fei is awoken by a searing noise. Sound becomes her weapon.

She sets out to uncover what’s happened to her and to fight the dangers threatening her village. A handsome miner with a revolutionary spirit accompanies Fei on her quest, bringing with him new risks and the possibility of romance. They embark on a majestic journey from the peak of their jagged mountain village to the valley of Beiguo, where a startling truth will change their lives forever…

(Summary from Goodreads

The premise to this one sounded really interesting, which is why I’d initially picked it up, but unfortunately, the execution didn’t really work for me.

I seem to recall that this was based in Chinese folklore, but I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell if I hadn’t been told — which was disappointing because that was part of what interested me about the book. Aside from the names, the world felt really Generic Fantasy to me. Which isn’t to say the world building was necessarily bad — Mead made good use of details, especially as Fei starts to hear. (Actually, those scenes where Fei hears things for the first time were my favorite ones.) But I definitely wouldn’t have sold it as Asian fantasy since it really wasn’t.

That being said, though: the cover? YES. SO HERE FOR IT.

I also had a hard time with the characters. Aside from the scenes where Fei is describing different sounds for the first time, or talking about her painting, she really didn’t interest me, and her romance with the miner (whose name I can’t even remember, tbh) fell so flat for me that it might as well not have been there at all. And to be totally honest, this book really didn’t need the romance at all. Fei saving Beiguo easily could’ve been interesting enough on its own and the romance actually took away from that for me.

TL;DR: Good world building but not much else going on for me.