Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is Fantasy YA!
Since the blog challenge is bringing around a bunch of new readers, I
have a few days lined up to showcase some of my very favorite YA reads.
I've written about most of them before, but these are my very favorites
in each of the genres I'll be highlighting. Today's lineup: Fantasy!
The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Holy smokes! Talk about unputdownable! I picked this one up on my Kindle, probably on sale, who knows how long ago. With my TBR list being what it is, the reason I started The False Prince was that I found myself covering SSR at school and didn't want to get into anything that would take me too long to read. Well, ok. I tore through this like a maniac, so mission accomplished--except that the second book in the trilogy JUST came out (as in, the day I finished this) so now that is DEFINITELY the next book I will be starting. (With any luck, it will be just as good and I'll finish that one by tomorrow.)
Ok, I should probably talk about the actual book, right? So basically, imagine a mash-up of the animated movie Anastasia and Game of Thrones. (If you haven't just dropped everything to go buy this book, you and I clearly have very different tastes in media.) There's a guy going around collecting boys from orphanages so that he can groom one of them into a passable version of the long-lost, assumed-dead younger prince of Carthya after the king, queen, and crown prince are murdered. If the prince is not produced, the power struggles that will ensue will inevitably plunge the country into a war it is ill-equipped to wage.
The chosen boys must learn their role, or face their almost certain deaths-by-knowing-too-much. (Oh yeah--add a tiny dash of My Fair Lady to the mix. I'll wait while you go ahead and order the book. Ok. Welcome back.)
I have to say, everything about this book worked for me. If you are a seasoned reader, you will probably guess some stuff about the plot. I did. I didn't care. I was still on the edge of my seat wondering how the reveal would come. It was that good. This was the most fun reading experience I've had in a long time. Like, other books may have made me feel more feelings or struck closer to home or whatever, but this book just made me so happy to be reading it. It's also a fantastic book to have in my arsenal for my students (and especially guys, because Sage's voice is so great and he's so ornery and awesome) who maybe aren't huge readers but like a good story. It's a middle grade book that will grab readers of all ages, it's got the highlights of epic fantasy stories without ever ever EVER feeling long or slow or overly-detailed, and it's just an all-around blast.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I think I felt my heart grow three sizes as I was finishing this book. Or else I felt it get slightly squashed under all the feelings. I don't know how else to account for the suspicious dampness in my eyes when I finished--it's not a crying book, really, but there it was anyway. This is the kind of book that rewards being a forever reader--I'm sure it's lovely even if it's the first book you've ever read, but if you've read and read and read and read and read, at recess and under the covers and on buses and trains and planes and finished books before you could get them home from the library and just spent a whole life loving books, this is the kind of book that loves you back.
It's also the kind of book that very nearly anyone can read. It has the magic of a really good middle grade fairy tale; some people will cry, "But there is fighting! And injuries! And sadness! And nudity! And fish guts! Won't you think of the children!" and to those people I would say, that's the lovely thing about words: they can only be as graphic as what's in your imagination. I suppose a book that went into exceedingly long explanations of any of those things, with a great number of descriptive words, might be a little much for a child in the middle grade age range. But this one isn't one of those, so I'm not particularly troubled by the idea of a child reading words like "blood" or "naked". (In fact, I'm given to understand that most people's very first experience in this world involves both of those things, so really, why the fuss?) At any rate, I would probably have been ready to really enjoy this book around age ten or so--a fairytale riff with a great story and more than a smattering of really excellent words--but I guess I just kept getting readier and readier to read it up until this afternoon, when I finally got around to it.
The bottom line: If you like a good story, read this. If you are A Reader--if that is part of who you are, and especially if as A Reader you have spent some time already in Fairyland--YOU MUST READ THIS. It's one of Those Books that hooks in somewhere under your rib cage and tucks a tiny little piece into your heart that you didn't know was missing.
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Enchanted is a fairytale re-imagining that really feels like a fairy tale. I mean, I pretty much love any kind of riff on fairy tales, since I grew up hip-deep in Andrew Lang's Fairy Books and their ilk. But Enchanted finds the best balance between something new (I never knew exactly where the story was going next, even though every single element was familiar to me) and something ancient and beloved (the mood was exactly, perfectly, sparklingly right for a grown-up reinvention of traditional tales.)
None of this is to take away from other fairytale-inspired stories I have loved. Cinder, for example, is so brilliant precisely because it doesn't feel like a fairy tale (even though it is one, or several.) But I was completely thrilled by how right Enchanted felt--like a dream where you're coming home to someplace you've never been.
Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I found Bitterblue to be a wonderfully satisfying continuation of the stories that were told in Graceling and Fire. It is a more direct sequel to Graceling, of course, but having just been blown away by Fire, I was happy to get some more information about those characters as well. I really adored Bitterblue as a character--when I put them all side-by-side, I think I like Bitterblue the best of Cashore's three heroines, even though I still feel most committed to Fire. Bitterblue feels younger and somehow more like a traditional fantasy heroine. I especially love the way she thought about relationships, and trying to understand the different ways people related to each other.
I'm going to be hard-pressed to review this one without spoilers for Graceling and Fire, and there will be light spoilers for Bitterblue itself, but I'll try to be careful with those.
I'm sure Saf is going to be a very popular character; he seems to have the rakish charm and emotional ambivalence that makes for a superstar YA love interest. However, I have to say, I rooted for Giddon throughout the book, and I'm hoping for future books that bear this out. Poor lovely Giddon, can't anything ever break your way? And he would be so good for Bitterblue. (I loved her revelation, upon meeting Fire, that it was possible for a couple to be together for nearly half a century without anything horrible happening. That comment shows some real genre awareness, and it pleased me almost as much as it pleased Bitterblue.)
Raffin and Bann continued to delight me. I want a book about Raffin and Bann and Giddon and Po. They are all such dear, lovable boys who can grow up when it is required of them, but can also quarrel over beans and vomit-inducing medicines that would do the Weasley twins proud.
As of right now, it doesn't seem that Kristin Cashore has said anything publicly about what else might be in the works, and who can blame her--but I can say for sure that if and when her next book comes out, I will be pre-ordering my copy the day it goes on sale.
Edit, 11/5/12: I bumped this up to five stars. I think I unfairly compared it to Fire, which blew my mind, but looking back over what I've read this year, this is clearly among the best.
Fire by Kristin Cashore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don't know how to write this review. I don't really know how to explain what this book is about, because it feels like lived experience rather than plotted fiction. I haven't cared this much about a protagonist since Puck Connolly of The Scorpio Races, which is a really, really difficult line to come up to. (What do they have in common? They love their horses, and they love men who love horses. I hadn't thought of that till just now, but it's true.) This book was disorienting, because I never felt like I had a handle on the plot--there wasn't a race or contest to win; no one really needed to escape from anywhere, except once, but that went pretty quickly; the fundamental rules of society weren't about to be overhauled. Instead, we got Fire: a young woman with exceptional beauty and unusual abilities, trying to work out one piece of her life after the next (What does it mean to be part of a family? What are the ethics of war? What obligations does a person have to herself, her friends, her loved ones, her country?). And...we get to work through them with her. They don't always come conveniently one after the next, and they are never easy things to work out. But always, always, I was willing to follow Fire as she worked them out. I think I said something similar in my review of Graceling, but after reading this, I almost feel as if I know what it is to be under the influence of Fire's power. (I almost missed my stop on the train at least three different times reading this book! That never happens to me!) Kristin Cashore is an extremely gifted writer. Her works require patience and time, to be sure. But the reward is so intensely wonderful that I have to encourage you to read her books. There is plenty of action and romance, but it unfolds slowly at times (and then, overwhelmingly, all at once--as I guess it does in real life, when it happens.) Don't go in expecting something paced like The Hunger Games--Cashore has her own rhythms, which are part of what I love. Lean into the writing. Trust it. Love the characters. Suddenly you'll look up and realize you've been reading for two hours. This is storytelling at its finest.
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