December 31, 2013

Top Ten Books I Read In 2013

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're listing the top books we've each read in 2013.

For the sake of simplicity, I decided to go with some of the books I rated most highly according to Goodreads. There's a mix of standalones and series, debuts and works by previously published authors. All of them, however, impressed me very much.

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo (My review)
Wanderlove by Kristin Hubbard (My review)
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (My review will be published in January)
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (My review)
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross (My review)
Between Shades of Gray by Rita Sepetys (My review)
Poison Study by Maria Snyder (My review)

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor (My review will be published in January) 
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (My review)
In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters (My review)

Please let me know what are some of the top books that you've read this past year!
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December 29, 2013

2013 End of the Year Book Survey

I quite enjoyed participating in the End of the Year Book Survey hosted by Jamie at The Perpetual Page Turner last year, and couldn't resist the opportunity to again analyze my past year's reading. 

Without any further ado:

The Best in Books

1. Best book I read in 2013

I’ll keep this nice and short.

Young Adult Fiction: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Adult Fiction: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

2. Book I was excited about and thought I was going to love more but didn’t

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell — I cannot properly express my disappointment over this. I expected to love it and ended up with more lukewarm feelings than anything else. I just couldn’t connect to the characters in any meaningful way.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2013
Pivot Point by Kasie West — I don’t count paranormal or contemporary among my favorite types of genres, so I wasn’t expecting too much out of this debut. But, wow, was it so much better than I expected!

4. Book I recommended to people most in 2013
I  think it’s a toss-up between Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm series and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. I’ll be recommending these books for ever and always.

5. Best series I discovered in 2013
Dairy Queen series by Catherine Gilbert Murdock — There are a ton of series I started this year, but for the purposes of this question I decided to pick a new series for me where I had read more than simply the first book. In many ways, me reading the Dairy Queen series was a discovery, as it was something I ordinarily would never have been interested in. But I’m so glad I gave it a chance. D.J. Schwenk is an easily relatable protagonist and so genuine.

6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2013
I hesitate to elevate authors to “favorite” status until I’ve read at least a few of their works. Authors well on their way to becoming favorites, however, include: Cat Winters, Hannah Kent, Jandy Nelson, and Erin Bow.

7. Best book that was out of my comfort zone or was a new genre for me
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson — This is a very dark contemporary, as protagonist Lennie grieves over her sister Bailey’s death. In addition to heavy grief themes, this book is just very quirky and music-oriented. None of these elements really appeal to me, but together they’ve created a beautiful book.

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2013
All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill — If I remember correctly, the events of this novel all take place over a few days. And nothing less than the state of the world is at stake. The story has an almost cinematic quality to it.

9. Book I read in 2013 that I am most likely to re-read next year

I haven’t actually done any substantial re-reading since I started this blog, but I do, however, plan on re-reading Finnikin of the Rock (first read in January 2012) and then reading the rest of Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles. It’s my pick for my work book club, so this is definitely happening.

10. Favorite cover of a book I read in 2013

11. Most memorable character in 2013
Sturmhond (from Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo)
Zuzana (from Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor)
Jessica Darling (from the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty)

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2013
I’m going to go with a contemporary, a fantasy, and a historical fiction here.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

All of these books made me want to use up packets of sticky notes. Beautiful line after beautiful line in all three.

13. Book that had the greatest impact on me in 2013
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr — I discussed this a bit in my review, but to recap: How to Save a Life is a YA contemporary about a pregnant teenage girl and the teenage daughter of the woman who plans on adopting the baby. My family adopted a baby when I was a teenager, and so I was really able to empathize with Jill and her turbulent emotions.

14. Book I can’t believe I waited UNTIL 2013 to finally read
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — I love reading older books every once in a while, especially eighteenth and nineteenth-century British classics. I’d heard wonderful things about this beautifully written, dark story and even started reading it once, but it took a book club selection for me to finally read it in its entirety.

15. Favorite passage/quote from a book I read in 2013
Each man, when he dies, sees the landscape of his own soul.  
Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

I know the expression love bloomed is metaphorical, but in my heart in this moment, there is one badass flower, captured in time-lapse photography, going from bud to wild radiant blossom in ten seconds flat.
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

I fell in love with him. But I don’t just stay with him by default as if there’s no one else available to me. I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. I choose him over and over again, and he chooses me.
Allegiant by Veronica Roth

We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

16. Shortest and longest book I read in 2013
I did read some short stories, but for the sake of the survey I'm counting books, not novellas or short stories.

Shortest: And All the Stars by Andrea K. Host (204 pages)
Longest: The Diviners by Libba Bray (578 pages)

Not going to lie: this makes me depressed. I love my chunky books and I cannot believe I didn’t read anything over 600 pages. Definitely something I’ll need to work on in 2014.

17. Book that had a scene in it that had me reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it
Allegiant by Veronica Roth — No explanation needed. Right? Right.

18. Favorite relationship from a book I read in 2013
Friendship: Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket from Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow
Familial: Jill and her mother from How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Romantic: Lennie and Joe from The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

19. Favorite book I read in 2013 from an author I read previously
Rampant and Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund — Three words: killer unicorn huntresses. In 2012 I had literally just read Jane Austen’s Persuasion before reading Peterfreund’s retelling of it, For Darkness Shows the Stars, which led to some (possibly unfair) comparisons where For Darkness Shows the Stars came up lacking. This was not the case at all with her Killer Unicorns duology, however.

20. Best book I read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson — Although this was first published in 2011, a number of my most trusted reviewers (Thanks Keertana, Courtney, Heather, Maja, Lauren!) loved this one, so I decided to give it a chance. And it’s one of my favorite contemporaries (favorite stories, probably) ever.

21. Genre I read the most from in 2013
I’m a fantasy fangirl through and through, so unsurprisingly I classified the most books as fantasies (a total of 24). Interestingly, I did really branch out in 2013 and read many books in a variety of genres. I classified 19 of the books I read this past year as contemporary (and this is coming from someone who’s convinced that contemporaries aren’t for her).

22. Newest fictional crush from a book I read in 2013

None, really. I guess I’m a bit beyond fictional crushes at this point. If I had to choose, I do like Sturmhond from Siege and Storm. And Joe from The Sky is Everywhere. And Titus from The Burning Sky.

23. Best 2013 debut I read
Oh this is a tie between Cat Winters’ In the Shadow of Blackbirds and Elizabeth Ross’ Belle Epoque. Both historical fiction. Both beautifully written. 

24. Most vivid world/imagery in a book I read in 2013
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent — I was so easily transported to the frigid, claustrophobic world of Iceland during the late 1800s as I read this book.

25. Book that was the most fun to read in 2013
The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani — I tend to read more serious books (no surprise there I’m sure). But I think that The School for Good and Evil is a very fun and lighthearted twist on fairy-tale culture.

26. Book that made me cry in 2013
Allegiant by Veronica Roth — Finishing this around midnight meant that any possibility for a good night’s rest was gone. I remember laying in my bed for quite a while just thinking over everything, and finally falling asleep with tears plastered to my face.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters — This was the first book that I finished after my maternal grandmother passed away, and so all of Mary Shelley’s revelations about death and the afterlife hit me pretty hard, especially that concluding scene between her and her beloved, Stephen.

27. Book I read in 2013 that I think got overlooked this year or when it came out
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross — This is well written, about a fascinating historical time period/culture, is focused on female friendship, and brings forth an interesting discussion of beauty standards. I honestly don’t know why this book hasn’t received more love.

Looking Ahead

1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2013 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2014
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente — If ever there’s a chance for a middle grade book to work for me, it would be this one. Simply everything about this book sounds wonderful and I cannot wait to read this entire trilogy.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2014
One? Yeah, sure. Broken down into a few categories:

Series Starter: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess
Series Ender: Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
Debut: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Standalone: The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

...And many, many more!

3. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging In 2014
I’d like to better connect with other bloggers, whether it is through more post/comment interactions or through Twitter. Blogging at Late Nights with Good Books is something I do for me, regardless of the audience I reach. I’ve always loved reading, and now I really do like having the opportunity to review books, but I feel as though I’m missing out somewhat by not being involved enough in this amazing community. I definitely do want to get to know my fellow book bloggers better in 2014!
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December 22, 2013

Review: Control by Lydia Kang

Control by Lydia Kang
Series: Control, #1
Published: December 24, 2013, Dial Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Source: From publicist via Netgalley
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

I draw back, considering the threat. I’m never one to cause trouble. I don’t rock the boat, because I don’t know how to swim. But this isn’t about me. Dad’s voice replays in my mind.
Take care of yourself. Stay safe, no matter what.

Control is a different sort of book, one far outside my traditional reading tastes. I have been making an effort to read a greater variety of genres, however, and so when I was given the opportunity to review this one I took it. And I’m glad that I did. For the most part, I found myself quite impressed with Kang’s debut.

Sister Zelia and Dylia are used to being on the road. Their father’s job as a scientist requires them to move to a new part of their futuristic United States every year or so. But when their father informs them of their latest move, the girls barely have any time to prepare for their departure, and then their father’s death causes their plans to come to an abrupt halt. Orphaned Zel and Dyl are taken in the foster care system and subsequently split up.

Zel finds herself living in Carus, a group home for misfit teens who all seem to possess extraordinary powers. She learns that Marka, the adult in charge at Carus, has snatched each teen away from the greedy grip of Aureus, which is the very same place that has taken Dyl. Although Aureus is also a home for teens with special powers, it seeks to exploit their powers. And so Zel, the normal human living among extraordinary people, must search for a way to save her little sister.

Let me first say that Control puts the “science” in “science fiction.” I say that with complete seriousness. Far too often have I come across books labeled as science fiction that have barely an ounce of truth behind their scientific facts. I knew that I would get something better through Control; in fact, I expected it. Author Lydia Kang has her MD and has helped other authors add more scientific validity to their own works. While I do not have a scientific background myself, all scientific aspects of Control seemed plausible and I had no trouble in believing them to be true.

Zel herself has a penchant for science, and so much of the book deals with science in one form or another. She finds herself surrounded humans with incredible abilities abilities that are not based on magic but on genetic engineering. Marka can smell emotions, Cy’s skin has a miraculous healing capacity, Vera’s skin can perform photosynthesis, Hex has an extra set of arms, and Wilbert has an extra head. Even her own sister is the apparent possessor of atypical genes. In comparison to them, Zel believes herself to be painfully ordinary.

Nevertheless, Zel is quite the atypical heroine. At sixteen, she remains incredibly underdeveloped physically. She suffers from Ondine’s Curse, which is a respiratory disorder where her body has trouble breathing on its own. She’s a rule-follower through and through, idolizes her father, and is willing to do whatever it takes to rescue her sister. Her love for Dyl, in many ways her polar opposite, felt like a spot-on depiction of sibling relationships. Zel can be a bit too self-deprecating at times, but she’s genuine and I enjoyed the fact that she has such a strong passion for science.

I suppose I should also mention the burgeoning romance that develops between Zel and Cy. I actually liked it. Me, who has problems with the majority of relationships depicted in YA novels. The rawness and complexity of their feelings for themselves and with regard to one another was compelling and very well-written. In Control, Kang takes two misfits whose lives are anything but normal and is able to make their relationship itself very believable.

My issues with this book stem primarily from the fact that I’m not a fan of stories about humans with genetic/superhuman abilities, apparently (I should have realized that earlier as I’m also not a fan of the X-Men franchise). As much as I found Zel’s adoptive family fascinating, I also found myself feeling a bit uncomfortable by it all. Even Zel’s physical immaturity was a bit too out-there for me. Perhaps the plausibility of so many aspects of this book also affected me; this is not the kind of reality I’d want for myself or others.

Although Control was not quite my cup of tea, I still am glad that I had the opportunity to read this book and am looking forward to its sequel, Catalyst. The characters are well-crafted and Kang writes very well. It is written with a specific audience in mind, however, and I cannot quite count myself as part of that (at least, not yet). The fact that I still enjoyed my experience reading this speaks volumes to the quality of the story, in my mind. For those who do enjoy more scientifically oriented stories and stories about extraordinary humans, this is not a book to miss.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer: I received this review copy from the publicist, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the final edition.  
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December 20, 2013

Ready to Become a Fan of...Brandon Sanderson

Ready to Become a Fan of... focuses on those authors new and old whose works I have every intention of eventually reading, but haven't been able to devote the time to just yet. By discussing authors and their works that I'm sure I'll love, given the chance, hopefully I can be more easily compelled to take the next step in not simply acquiring one of their books, but actually taking the time to read it.

This month I'm putting on record that I am ready to become a fan of Brandon Sanderson.

About the author:
Brandon Sanderson writes fantasy and science fiction works for both adult and young adult readers. In addition to his own novels, Sanderson was also picked to continue on with the last three books in the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death. To date, he has published over fifteen novels in addition to a number of novellas. Many of his series are still in the process of being written (Mistborn, The Stormlight Archive, Rithmatist, Reckoners), so hopefully that means years and years of new releases from him.

Work I'm most looking forward to reading:
Mistborn: The Final Empire

Once, a hero arose to save the world. A young man with a mysterious heritage courageously challenged the darkness that strangled the land.

He failed.

For a thousand years since, the world has been a wasteland of ash and mist ruled by the immortal emperor known as the Lord Ruler. Every revolt has failed miserably.

Yet somehow, hope survives. Hope that dares to dream of ending the empire and even the Lord Ruler himself. A new kind of uprising is being planned, one built around the ultimate caper, one that depends on the cunning of a brilliant criminal mastermind and the determination of an unlikely heroine, a street urchin who must learn to master Allomancy, the power of a Mistborn. (Goodreads)

Why this author & this work:
It should come as no surprise to any of my followers that I love reading fantasies. And of all the fantasy sub-genres, high fantasy is closest to my heart. If I was forced to read only one genre for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t even hesitate before deciding on high fantasy. There’s just something so appealing to me about the many tropes indicative of the genre.

I’ve read books by many of big high fantasy authors: Lloyd Alexander, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, C.S. Lewis, George R.R. Martin, Anne McCafferty, Robin McKinley,  J.R.R. Tolkien…you get the idea. Not an exhaustive list by any means, but still I think it’s a fairly decent sampling of the genre. Somehow, though, I seem to have missed Brandon Sanderson. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of him until about a year ago. I did start Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I know Sanderson picked up after Jordan’s death, but I never got around to finishing the series.

I was actually supposed to go to a Sanderson reading and signing at the beginning of October, but my plans fell through. In a way this is a good thing, however. Had I gone to that signing, I would have felt obligated to read Steelheart first, the book that was being promoted there. And from what I've heard about Sanderson's works, I think that Steelheart probably wouldn't have been the best introduction to his works.

Mistborn sounds like everything I crave in a high fantasy. A battle of Good vs. Evil of epic proportions. Class subdivisions with a hint of rebellion, and a heroine found within the lower ranks. A magic that involves manipulation of the elements. And the twist: this dark age is following the defeat of a hero, of a chosen one. Plus, this book has a ridiculously high ratings average on Goodreads (currently 4.38 from over 82,000  total ratings). So, yes. In summation: this sounds like it features many of my absolute favorite high fantasy tropes to great effect.

For those of you who've already read some of Sanderson's works, I'd appreciate hearing what you think about them. For those who also haven't read his works yet, let me know what's been holding you back!

Ready to Become a Fan of... is an original feature of Late Nights with Good Books.

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December 17, 2013

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read In 2013

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're discussing the top ten authors we've discovered this past year, both recently published and not. 
Historical Fiction  
Cat Winters    
Read my 5-star review of In the Shadow of Blackbirds  
Hannah Kent  
My 4.5-star review of Burial Rites will be posted in January  
Elizabeth Ross    
Read my 4.5-star review of Belle Epoque


Catherine Gilbert Murdock  
Read my 4.5-star review of Dairy Queen, my 4-star review of The Off Season, and my 4-star review of Front and Center  
Sara Zarr    
Read my 4.5-star review of How to Save a Life  
Jandy Nelson    
Read my 5-star review of The Sky is Everywhere

Speculative Fiction  
Erin Bow    
Read my 4.5-star review of Sorrow's Knot  
Kasie West    
Read my 4-star review of Pivot Point
Cristin Terrill  
Read my 4.5-star review of All Our Yesterdays
Plenty of great authors were left off this list, but that's the nature of making lists and being forced to limit oneself. I wanted to keep my genre classifications and author picks equal, so I'm stopping at nine.

Please let me know what new-to-you authors top your list!
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December 16, 2013

Review: The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler

The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler
Published: 2013, Simon Pulse
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary, Romance
Source: Library
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

They say you can never step into the same river twice. And maybe that's how it was for Papi now, memories shifting and re-forming soundlessly beneath him while the rest of us sat on the shore and watched.

Oh, dear. It appears I may have found a YA contemporary author who does not work for me at all. While I tend to gravitate towards speculative fiction by and large, I’ve found a certain sense of comfort associated with contemporary fiction. Sometimes it’s nice to wrap myself in the more familiar, the more ordinary. Somehow, though, The Book of Broken Hearts simply ended up frustrating and underwhelming me.

Jude Hernendez was supposed to spend her summer before college relaxing, hanging out with friends at the local coffee shop, participating in a community production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, going on a road trip. Instead, she spends her days taking care of her father, who is slowly deteriorating due to early onset Alzheimer’s.

There doesn’t seem much that she and her father can do in the face of his disease, until they discover her father’s old ‘61 motorcycle. Seeing his motorcycle again brings up many memories for her father, and for the first time Jude has hope that they may be able to fight back against her father’s memory loss. Jude decides to devote her time to getting her father’s motorcycle repaired, and, perhaps with it, his memories strengthened. But to do that, Jude needs help. Help which comes in the form of local mechanic-in-training Emilio Vargas, who just happens to have two brothers who broke the hearts of two of Jude’s sisters.

My major complaint with The Book of Broken Hearts is how childish Jude’s narration tends to be, and this is more than just a case of me no longer being a teenager myself. First of all, Jude’s on the older side of YA protagonists, having just graduated from high school. It’s ridiculous that she gives her dog Pancake some narration (which really amounts to nothing more than mentions of squirrels). It’s silly that Jude truly believes in the oath that she and her sisters took years ago, foregoing any contact with the Vargas brothers on pain of death (not literally). It’s saddening that Jude thinks that repairing a motorcycle can become a panacea for her father’s condition (but understandable, I suppose). I can allow for the intense emotional stress to have taken some toll on Jude’s day-to-day maturity, but not to the degree I found within the novel.

The eponymous Book of Broken Hearts is an heirloom that has been passed down to Jude by her sisters. All three of them recorded their relationship woes, most notably those woes related to the Vargas brothers. Two of her three much-older sisters had their hearts broken by two of the Vargas brothers, duly recorded in the book. As a sign of solidarity, the three sisters decided to make a pact against any further involvement with that family. Jude was in the room at the time and also ended up partaking in their blood oath. Although Jude has been the owner of the book for many years, she hasn’t written anything of note. And she’s convinced she won’t until her friendships start breaking, friends unable to empathize with her situation. The only one who can, really, is Emilio Vargas, who Jude knows is off-limits. I suppose the conflict that Jude has between pleasing her sisters and doing what she wants isn’t a bad theme by any means; it’s just that there are so many richer themes to explore in this book that I didn’t see the point of Jude’s intense fixation on the book, the oath, and Emilio.

After all, this is a book about Alzheimer’s. Jude’s father is in his early fifties and was only diagnosed a few months ago, but his condition is steadily worsening to the point that he can no longer work and cannot be left alone. With Jude’s sisters all living away from home and their mother working full time, it falls on Jude to be her father’s caretaker. The relationship between Jude and her father, as she watches him struggle with his memories and sense of self, is where the heart of this story lies. Ockler tries to incorporate a bigger examination of family dynamics, as readers become introduced to Jude’s mother and three sisters, but none of those characters can hold a flame against the relationship that Ockler establishes between Jude and her papi. Frankly, it is quite depressing to read about at times, but the glimmers of hope make the effort of struggling through the hard parts more than worth it. I just want the story to be about Jude and her papi, with perhaps a dash of Emilio thrown in. Is that too much to ask for?

I did like Emilio and the purpose he serves within this novel. Despite the title and the oath, Emilio’s presence is much larger than that of a love interest. As their hired mechanic, Emilio represents the hope that Jude retains that her father’s condition, if not quite irreversible, can at least be lessened. He also proves to be exactly what Jude needs, never trivializing her concerns, always there to comfort her, and there to challenge Jude’s preconceived notions of herself and her wants in life. Essentially, Jude needs Emilio to bring out the best in herself, but not because he’s attracted to her. Rather, Jude’s self-realizations are able to occur because of Emilio’s support as a friend, which is a welcome relief.

Ockler focuses on two distinct Hispanic cultures within her society: Jude’s family is Argentinian while Emilio’s family is Puerto Rican. I studied Spanish in school, and so the knowledge that Ockler’s book focuses on two Hispanic cultures was the biggest draw for me. I liked the inclusion of the Spanish language and parts of Jude’s Argentinian culture (Emilio’s Puerto Rican culture isn’t really discussed), but I found myself wishing for even more. Much of Jude’s culture seemed to be relegated to language and food, which was a shame.

Is this a terrible book? Of course not. I freely admit that I’m a bit picky about what works of contemporary fiction I enjoy reading. Still, I felt as though the romantic aspects and family dynamics of this novel are overplayed. I would have been fine basically focusing primarily on Jude’s relationship with her father. Jude is also a frustratingly immature narrator, which is something that never settles well with me. I can see what other readers have enjoyed in this book, but it’s not for me.

Rating: 2 stars

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December 12, 2013

Review: The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas

The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas
Series: The Elemental Trilogy, #1
Published: 2013, Balzer + Bray
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

There existed something in this world that bound a mage tighter than a blood oath: love. Love was the ultimate chain, the ultimate whip, and the ultimate slave driver.

The prologue of The Burning Sky begins with a promise:
This is the story of a girl who fooled a thousand boys, a boy who fooled an entire country, a partnership that would change the fate of realms, and a power to challenge the greatest tyrant the world had ever known.
Expect magic.
Quite a lofty promise made, no? But the better question here is whether the novel delivers on its promises. After concluding this book, I do think so, though with a few reservations.

Iolanthe Seaborne is a considerably talented elemental mage able to control three of the four elements, however she is alive in a time when the influence of elemental mages is receding. Instead, people are becoming more reliant on subtle magic and technological progress. Still, Iolanthe’s powers are desirable enough that she’s been asked to light the path at a local wedding and has created a light elixir for the ceremony.

She agreed to perform at the ceremony for her sake, to better her education and chances for a good career, and for the sake of her guardian, Master Haywood. For the past number of years, Iolanthe has convinced the various schools that he’s taught at (as well as their surrounding communities) that Master Haywood is still competent, that his brain hasn’t been addled by his drug addiction. It is with considerable consternation, therefore, that Iolanthe learns that her guardian does not want her to perform at the ceremony. Not only that, but he goes so far as to destroy Iolanthe’s light elixir to ensure she will not attend the ceremony.

With too much at stake, Iolanthe researches ways to fix ruined elixirs and finds out they can be fixed if struck by a lightning bolt. By summoning that lightning bolt, however, Iolanthe finds her life forever changed as she flees from the imperialistic Atlantis, joins forces with the prince of Dominion, and learns of a prophecy involving the supposed greatest elemental mage of their time: herself.

By far the best aspect of The Burning Sky is the characterization of its protagonists, Iolanthe and Titus. Titus is the prince and Master of Domain, the magical world somehow connected to our own. Although he’s Domain’s ostensible leader, the agents of Atlantis have made him into little more than a puppet; he doesn’t quite have the power to protect his own people from the encroaching power of Atlantis. Ever since his mother died when he was young, Titus has outwardly given deference to Atlantis, allowing them to think of him as pompous, conceited, and ill fit to lead his people. But the public persona that Titus presents is little more than a facade, albeit a necessary one, as he waits for the event his mother prophesied to occur: the day that he meets the great elemental mage who will help him overthrow Atlantis. Although his many personas make it difficult for others to see his true thoughts, Thomas does a good job of making his true character fairly clear to readers.

Compared to Titus, Iolanthe felt a bit more like an enigma. Although a solid half the story is told from her perspective, I had a difficult time understanding her initially. Part of that is certainly due to the fact that Iolanthe spends a large portion of the novel as Archer Fairfax, fellow Eton schoolboy and best friend of Titus. I got to know Archer fairly well--well enough that at times I felt as though Iolanthe herself was overshadowed by her public persona (ironic, perhaps, in light of how I felt about Titus and his multiple personas).

While I did not connect with Iolanthe as quickly as I did with Titus, I came to appreciate her character more and more as the story continued. For the supposed hope of the entire Domain, Iolanthe is both flawed and vulnerable. She’s scared of what the prophecy entails, but in the end is willing to do what it takes for the good of others. In other words, by the end of the book she has become a character I could really empathize with.

Thomas spends quite a lot of the book’s focus and narration on developing Titus and Iolanthe individually. The same care and effort is also then put into their relationship with one another. After an initial curiosity with one another, Titus and Iolanthe spend a large percentage of the book in various stages of dislike and only gradually come to trust one another. One of the reasons I tend to dislike most YA romances is that they feel disingenuous. Two characters are forced into certain situations together and readers just know they’ll end up together. Even though that is true to some degree here, Titus and Iolanthe’s relationship is founded on more than good looks, but on shared ideals and genuine respect for one another (eventually). The development of their relationship felt refreshingly realistic to me.

The worldbuilding is not bad necessarily, but neither is it great. The story takes place in two main places, the Domain (the realm where mages and magic live) and the human world, in a late nineteenth-century England. Thomas does not spend too much time developing historical England, which is fine as the book’s focus is more on the fantastical and the magical. Unfortunately, I was not quite satisfied with the depiction of the Domain either. There is no map to guide readers, and neither is there any sort of explanation of how the “real” world and the “magical” world are connected. While I understood that Atlantis is kind of like this imperialistic/colonial country within the magical realm, I cannot exactly put my finger on its relationship with the Domain. Inhabitants of the Domain/Atlantis possess various magic powers: they can vault (essentially teleport), they coexist with various other magical beings, and some can harness the powers of the elements. None of the features of this world were explained to the degree they could have been, but I am fine with that. I read fantasy a lot and am used to suspending disbelief. If you’re going to attempt to intermix a magical world with our own, however, I need more explanation than what those few footnotes provided.

The Burning Sky is also not as action-oriented as I assumed it would be. This is not a bad thing, but not what I was expecting with a prologue promising rebellion and justice and challenges to tyrants. The last quarter or so of the book is fairly action-packed, but until then Titus and Iolanthe spend a lot of time at Eton acting as normal students during the day and practicing magic by night. There were instances when I felt as though the plot had stalled, but upon reflection I do think the pacing definitely contributed to a better, more fuller understanding of Titus and Iolanthe’s characterizations.

I realize that I’ve given this story a fairly high rating, but I am nonetheless left feeling a bit disappointed. I guess that’s just what happens when you have sky-high expectations of something. The Burning Sky is not a bad book, but I did spend a bit of time forced to pause due to some unusually vague aspects of worldbuilding and lulls in the plot. Still, though, Thomas certainly knows how to write her characters and relationships and I remain fascinated by the overarching storyline. I’ve read my fair share of fantasies that start with a stumble only to become better and better as the series continues. I am hopeful that will be the case here.

Rating: 4 stars
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