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Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I have been curious about Naomi Novik’s standalone fantasy, Uprooted, ever since I first heard about it. I read the first few Temeraire books and thought they were well-written. I just didn’t feel like continuing with the rest of the series. Closer to Uprooted’s release date, I saw glowing reviews pop up in the blogosphere and that just made me want to read the book even more. I picked it up when I was in the mood for a good fantasy novel – Uprooted delivered and even went beyond my expectations. It’s one of my favorite reads this year.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:
UprootedAgnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows — everyone knows — that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

I love how Uprooted’s first line just drew me in. Right away, I wanted to know more about Agnieszka and her village’s arrangement with the Dragon (who is a wizard and not a mythical beast). I really liked Agnieszka’s character. She had a lot of freedom because she was a Dragon girl and was able to run wild as a young girl. She used to think that one of her greatest skills was that she could always be counted on to mess up her appearance, getting her clothes torn and having mud stick to her skirts. But I think what’s great about her is that she cares deeply about people, especially her family and her best friend Kasia. I knew this was a significant trait that would shape her actions for the rest of the novel. At the start of the book, she has no idea why the Dragon chooses her and was as surprised as anyone else to discover that she is actually capable of doing magic. It was interesting to see her grow and develop her skills as a witch, more so because she has a different way of doing magic. I found her interactions with the Dragon entertaining! Some of the scenes were surprisingly funny for me. The Dragon was so ill-tempered, arrogant and a little vain. He was very reluctant to be a teacher to Agnieszka, he only did it because he felt it was his duty to train anyone who has magical abilities. He was snooty and kept looking down at Agnieszka when she couldn’t manage the simplest forms of magic. He thought she was a hopeless case. He strongly reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, which is not a bad thing because I loved that book. I just wish there was more about the Dragon, I wanted to know more about his backstory and I also wanted him to have more scenes in the latter half of the book. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Kasia. I thought she would have a small role to play in the story but she has an inner strength that’s very different from Agnieszka’s. I loved how solid their friendship was because I always enjoy reading about strong friendships in fiction.

Uprooted - first line

I loved the fairytale feel of the writing. It reminded me of some of my favorite authors like Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier and Diana Wynne Jones (because of the Howl-like character). I thought the first half of the book had great pacing. I was very absorbed and wanted to ignore everything else so I can keep reading. The pace slowed down a bit after reaching the halfway mark, but it picked up again for the last few chapters. I enjoyed reading about the world that Naomi Novik created, from the mysterious and horrifying Wood to how magic works in different ways. Agnieszka’s magic is more instinctive and closely tied to nature and her environment. While the kind of magic that the Dragon wields is a more traditional (in their world), more scientific, with specific steps that need to be followed in order for a spell to be executed well. I also liked the experimental feel of the two kinds of magic being combined, I thought that was described beautifully. It felt like the combined magic worked specifically because it was Agnieszka and the Dragon doing them. Even though I wanted to read more about this world, I’m very satisfied that Uprooted is a standalone novel. Nowadays when so many series books are being released, it’s refreshing to read a book that is complete on its own. Beautifully written, Uprooted has everything that I love in a good fantasy novel: solid worldbuilding, political intrigue, strong heroine, friendships and family ties, and a romance that has a bit of a love-hate flavor. Highly recommended for fantasy fans. I felt like I was reading an old favorite when I picked this up. I’m pretty sure it’s a book that I will be rereading in the future. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Naomi Novik will write a companion novel set in this world with cameos from Agnieszka and the Dragon! I’ve also heard the news that the rights for an Uprooted movie adaptation have been bought and I’m really hoping they’d do a good job with that.

Other reviews:
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
By Singing Light
Angieville
Fantasy Cafe
The Book Smugglers
Me and My Books


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Days of Blood and Starlight and Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor

I read and loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone the year it came out. I can’t believe it’s been four years since then! I don’t know why I put off reading its sequels, I think I wanted to wait until the trilogy is finished so I can read all three books together. I was in the mood to read about Prague and also to immerse myself in a good fantasy world so I picked up Daughter of Smoke and Bone to reread and dove right into the second and third books. There are unavoidable spoilers for the first book in this combined review.

Days of Blood and Starlight
Days of Blood and StarlightVastly different from the first book in the series, Days of Blood and Starlight is all about the cycle of violence and vengeance involved in the never-ending war between the seraph and chimaera. Karou and Akiva are on opposite sides of the war and both are struggling to make the most out of their current situation, to find a way to atone for everything that they’ve done previously. The peace and tranquility of Karou’s human life in Prague gives a nice contrast to the war-torn world of Eretz. If Daughter of Smoke and Bone was about an epic love, its sequel is about soul-crushing heartbreak. Heartbreak not just for Karou and Akiva but also for all their people, for everyone who has only ever known war. I can’t say that I loved twists and turns that the story took but I have to admit that it’s a compelling read. Laini Taylor has a beautiful writing style. I wanted to keep reading but also didn’t want to continue because I didn’t want the characters to go through more pain. While it’s not easy to read, I did appreciate the empathy that this kind of story invokes in the reader. I really just want things to get better for everyone (well not the villains, of course). I started the third book right after finishing this one because I couldn’t wait to find out what’s going to happen.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters
Dreams of Gods and MonstersYou know how some series just keep getting better as it progresses? For me, this series was the opposite of that. I loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone and thought it was a beautiful story. I wasn’t as emotionally invested in the second book but I still found it an absorbing read. With Dreams of Gods and Monsters, I kept thinking more along the lines of, “What? What is going on here?” While Karou and Akiva’s storyline continues, other threads featuring new characters (Eliza and Scarab) are introduced. I wasn’t really invested in Eliza’s story and even skimmed some of the sections that were devoted to her. Scarab was more interesting but it might have been better if there was more than a hint about her people in the earlier books. At the end of the book, the varying threads of the story are pulled together but it didn’t feel seamless to me. I got the feeling that Laini Taylor was trying to tie loose ends and create an epic mythology encompassing Eretz and Earth but it felt a bit all over the place for me. From the start, the trilogy was focused on Karou, Akiva and the war between their people. The new elements in this last installment made the main focus of the trilogy feel smaller and less significant. I think there really was just one thing that I liked in Dreams of Gods and Monsters, which was the sweet secondary romance. Aside from that, I kept reading only because I wanted to see how the story would end. And even that wasn’t as satisfying as I would like. The end felt more like the beginning of the end – raising more questions than settling answers. It really makes me sad that I didn’t love the whole trilogy since it started really strong for me.


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Mini Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Goblin EmperorThe youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

I had high hopes for this one since it kept being recommended by bloggers I trust. Also, they said that it’s a good read for fans of Megan Whalen Turner. In my eyes, that’s the highest praise that they can give! I did enjoy reading The Goblin Emperor and I really liked Maia’s character. But it didn’t become a favorite novel. I just didn’t love it as much as I was expecting. It’s a quiet kind of fantasy, a lot more introspective than action-oriented and filled to the brim with political intrigue. Maia was never groomed to become the emperor and his education is sadly lacking but he rises to the occasion beautifully. He’s a smart guy and never loses the compassion that’s such a big part of him even though he had a gloomy upbringing. He has an inner strength that others gradually recognize and admire, which helps him gain allies along the way. I like how Maia inspires loyalty because of how kind he is and how unusual that kindness is in an emperor. He deserves all the help that he can get so it’s a good thing that there are some people on his side. One thing that I liked about the novel is that it’s a standalone… as much as I love reading fantasy series, it’s refreshing to read a book that is complete on its own. While I believe this story wouldn’t linger in my mind, I did have fun reading it and would recommend the book to readers who like quiet fantasy with a strong dose of politics.

Other reviews:
By Singing Light
The Book Smugglers
Things Mean a Lot


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Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

I haven’t read a Sharon Shinn novel recently so I picked up Troubled Waters when I was in the mood for some fantasy. I have fond memories of the author’s Samaria books, which is an excellent series about angels. I also remember enjoying the Twelve Houses series although I’m a bit fuzzy on the details since it’s been years since I read them. From what I’ve heard, Troubled Waters is the first in a series but was initially written as a standalone. I liked knowing that I could read Troubled Waters by itself and that I didn’t have to worry about committing to a whole series.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Troubled WatersZoe Ardelay receives astonishing and unwelcome news: she has been chosen to become the king’s fifth wife. Forced to go to the royal city, she manages to slip away and hide on the shores of the mighty river.

It’s there that Zoe realizes she is a coru prime ruled by the elemental sign of water. She must return to the palace, not as an unwilling bride for the king, but a woman with power in her own right. But as Zoe unlocks more of the mysteries of her blood—and the secrets of the royal family — she must decide how to use her great power to rise above the deceptions and intrigue of the royal court.

At the start of the novel, Zoe is grieving and mourning the loss of her beloved father. He was a powerful man at court but was exiled by the king for reasons that aren’t really clear to Zoe. They lived simply in a remote village far from the city. Numb with grief, Zoe isn’t even surprised when the king’s right-hand man shows up at their village to whisk her away to the capital, saying that she’s meant to be the king’s fifth wife. At that point, Zoe doesn’t really care what happens with her future but eventually, the numbness wears off and she realizes that she has no intention of being forced to marry someone she doesn’t know. I found Troubled Waters an absorbing read mostly because I liked Zoe as a character. It was very easy to get into her story and read about her adventures – living with the squatters near the river, working as a shopgirl and slowly discovering her powers. I also knew right away that there would be a romance. It was subtly done but I noticed how carefully Zoe kept paying attention to this guy. It’s a really good slow burn romance that’s drawn out throughout the length of the whole book. I enjoyed the conversations (mostly arguments) between these two characters and looked forward to their moments together.

I liked the world presented by Troubled Waters, where everyone receives random blessings a few hours after they’re born. Supplicants can also enter temples and draw out blessings whenever they feel like they need guidance. These blessings are based on the elements (air, water, fire, wood and earth). Everyone’s personality and way of life is tied to these elements. Zoe is coru, a woman of blood and water, which she inherits from her mother’s side of the family. As a result, she adapts easily to changes and surprises in her life. But she also gets sweela, which is fire, from her father. I don’t think I’m explaining it well but I found these blessings and elemental characteristics charming. I found Troubled Waters to be a quiet kind of fantasy. Kind of like a smooth and steady ride instead of wild and bumpy. Reading this book was a pleasant experience, it’s the type of book that I enjoy curling up with on a lazy weekend or to help me unwind after a work day. I can sense that Troubled Waters isn’t the kind of book that everyone will enjoy but I have a feeling most epic fantasy readers will probable have fun reading it. Troubled Waters reminded me a bit of my reading experience of House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier, not because of any similarities in worldbuilding or characters but just in the sense that I found both of them satisfying reads but couldn’t quite pinpoint why they worked for me. All I can say is that Sharon Shinn is a good storyteller and I enjoy reading her books. A minor quibble that I have with Troubled Waters is that I think the ending should have been extended a bit, it would have been nice to have an epilogue in there. But that’s not a major issue and I enjoyed reading the book overall. I might be tempted to read another Sharon Shinn novel soon.


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Retro Friday: Fire by Kristin Cashore

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

I read both Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore when they first came out. That was a few years ago, back when I didn’t have a book blog. I recently reread them for a discussion with my online book club YAckers. I loved rereading both and realized that I have never written a review for Fire. It’s a good thing I refreshed my memory by rereading it recently because that gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about one of my absolute favorite epic fantasy novels.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

FireIt is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she has the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City, the royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Fire is such an achingly beautiful novel. It is wonderfully written with engaging characters, set in a dazzlingly colorful world. Fire is a human monster, an amazingly beautiful person who can read minds and manipulate people through her powers – either with just the way she looks or by compelling them to say or do things. Having seen what her cruel father Cansrel was able to do with his own monstrous powers, Fire is very cautious with hers. She has no intention of manipulating people and doesn’t even want to be involved in court politics. But the kingdom is on the brink of civil war and Fire has a role to play in all of this.

I loved Fire’s character. It was a pleasure to see her stretch as she opens herself up to possibilities. It’s understandable that she’s afraid of what she’s capable of but she has such a good heart that she doesn’t really have to worry about it. Aside from Fire, there are also plenty of fully fleshed out secondary characters to love in this novel. Can I just take a moment to say how much I love Brigan? Remarkable character and brilliant in so many different ways. I loved how Kristin Cashore portrayed the relationships in this book – they’re very messy and complicated but work so well in the context of the story. I liked seeing the dynamics of different types of relationships – romantic, platonic and within families – in the story. There’s a lot of love in there but also has some sadness and violence mixed in. Here’s a snippet that illustrates this:

“She had thought she’d already reached her capacity for pain and had no room inside her for more. But she remembered having told Archer once that you could not measure love on a scale of degrees, and now she understood that it was the same with pain. Pain might escalate upwards, and, just when you’d thought you’d reached your limit, begin to spread sideways, and spill out, and touch other people, and mix with their pain. And grow larger, but somehow less oppressive. She had thought herself trapped in a place outside the ordinary feeling lives of other people; she had not noticed how many other people were trapped in that place with her.”

Fire just has everything that I look for in my epic fantasy reads. Great characters, solid worldbuilding, a slow burn romance that I can root for and complex relationships that feel realistic. I cannot recommend it enough. It makes me happy that Fire stood up to a reread and I loved it just as much as when I was first introduced to it. In fact, I had to wait a couple of days for the story to fade from my mind before I could move on to another book. After rereading both Graceling and Fire, I am now craving for a new Kristin Cashore novel. I will be eagerly waiting for news about what she will publish next.


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The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner’s Curse came to my attention when my good friend Nomes mentioned that it’s one of her favorite reads for this year. For some reason, this title flew under my radar when it first came out. I think the cover doesn’t really represent the story very well and might be one of the reasons why I wasn’t initially curious about The Winner’s Curse. I tried reading a couple of chapters just to see if it’s something that I would be interested in and I was fully absorbed. I was surprised at how easy it was to get into the story.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Winner's CurseAs a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him — with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

The Winner’s Curse is set in a make-believe world but has no magic or mythical creatures in it so it has more of a historical fantasy feel to it. Kestrel is the daughter of a well-known general, which is a pretty big deal since their society holds the military and warfare in high regard. The Valorian empire is already huge and yet it still continues to extend its reach and enslave the nations it conquers. The story is set several years after the Valorians have conquered the Herrani people. While Kestrel loves her people and she knows that slavery is part of their culture and their way of life, she doesn’t really approve of it. When she unexpectedly buys a slave at an auction, she has no idea what to with him. But she recognizes Arin’s strength of spirit and admires that. A friendship slowly develops between the two of them. Kestrel is bound by the constraints of the Valorian society – she only has two choices when she comes of age: to join the military or to get married, neither of which are very appealing to her. She’s not a good soldier even if she keeps training and she’s not interested enough in any guy to marry him. She’s great at military strategy, which is why her father keeps pushing her to enlist, but she’s not passionate about that kind of thing. What she loves is music, something which Valorians believe shouldn’t be taken seriously. A snippet to show how Kestrel feels when she plays the piano:

“Music made her feel as if she were holding a lamp that cast a halo of light around her, and while she knew there were people and responsibilities in the darkness beyond it, she couldn’t see them. The flame of what she felt when she played made her deliciously blind.”

I wish I felt that strongly about music but I don’t have the skill or talent for it. Instead, I will liken Kestrel’s passion to how I sometimes feel when I read – entirely focused in the world created by the author, paying no attention to other tasks that need to be done. Which is exactly what happened while I was reading The Winner’s Curse. To be honest, I have a hard time pinpointing why I enjoyed this book so much. I suppose it’s mostly because I like Kestrel, I like Arin and I like how their friendship developed. They’re both intelligent characters who slowly learn to respect and trust each other, in spite of their differences and the enmity between their nations. I also liked the setting and the contrast between the Valorian and Herrani cultures. How one was all about gaining power by expanding its borders, and one was a more peaceful culture centered around the arts. I was engrossed by The Winner’s Curse and yet I also feel like it could have been a stronger book. Let’s put it this way, this is a good introduction to the series and the story arc wraps up nicely but I feel like by the time the sequel comes out (maybe next year?), I would have forgotten most of the details in this one. It wasn’t mind-blowing but it was a pleasant and enjoyable read which I recommend to YA fans, even those who don’t usually read fantasy.

Other reviews:
Fantasy Cafe
Good Books and Good Wine
Ivy Book Bindings
Shae Has Left the Room
The Bookish Manicurist
Alexa Loves Books


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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

At the beginning of the month, I was working on my monthly recap for April when I realized that I only finished reading one novel for the whole month. Instead of doing a recap, I thought I might as well just write a review for Thorn by Intisar Khanani. Thorn is one of those titles that I would never have discovered if it hadn’t been recommended through the blog. I was immediately curious when I found out about the premise of this book since it’s a retelling of The Goose Girl fairy tale. The only retelling of The Goose Girl that I’ve read prior to this one was Shannon Hale’s which is one of my favorite books so of course, I wanted to find something similar.

ThornHere’s the summary from Goodreads:

For Princess Alyrra, choice is a luxury she’s never had… until she’s betrayed.

Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future.

But powerful men have powerful enemies – and now, so does Alyrra. Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realize, sometime the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.

I read Thorn in bits and pieces, while traveling from one place to another. I can’t tell if it was because of this that I didn’t enjoy Thorn as much as I was expecting. I wonder if I would have liked the book better if I was able to read it in one go. I thought the writing was beautiful, I felt that it had a fairy tale feel to it. I also liked Thorn as a character and I was curious about her and what would happen after she loses her place as a princess. In spite of that, I felt that I wasn’t as invested in the story as much as I would have wanted. None of the other characters, except maybe for Falada the talking Horse, stood out for me. I would have wanted to care more for the prince and maybe even the king. I definitely wanted more of the thief Red Hawk. Maybe there were too many characters in the story, which made me feel that there wasn’t enough character development for most of them. The tone of the book is also a bit bleak and dark, with several characters having to endure so much but I was fine with that since the original story isn’t exactly a light and fun read. I just felt that some of the problems weren’t properly addressed towards the end of the novel. Maybe I’ll have a more positive reaction if I get to reread Thorn. I’m glad I gave it a try since The Goose Girl retellings are hard to come by. I would still be interested in checking out the author’s other books.

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