Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Summary: Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near-impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one unlikely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life– a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha… and the secrets of her heart.

My Thoughts: Shadow and Bone has been popping up all over the YA/fantasy blogs recently and I finally got my hands on a copy from my library. I finished it in less than 12 hours and I’m eager for the sequel, so that tells you a bit about how much I liked it.

I think this is Bardugo’s debut novel, and she did a great job taking the traditional high fantasy genre and putting her own twist on it. There’s some great new world building here that was very well done, explained smoothly and  naturally, and made a lot of sense to the plot, which honestly doesn’t always happen in fantasy novels. I also liked the sort of old Russian influence on a lot of the language and the culture in Bardugo’s world–that’s something I haven’t really seen before in YA fantasy.

I especially, especially liked the way Bardugo book-ended her story with the prologue/epilogue-type chapters, where the style and narration switched slightly and opened and closed her story to great effect. Bardugo’s story here has just the right amount of action mixed with mysticism and the unknown.

I’m glad to have a new fantasy series to follow; I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel when it comes out! Also, the cover is one of the more awesome book typography and design combinations I’ve seen in awhile.

Author Website: http://www.leighbardugo.com/

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Summary: On a day that started like any other…

Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, adoring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. Then, in an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating the one decision she has left—the most important decision she’ll ever make. (Courtesy of author website).

My Thoughts: I had been reading many great reviews for this book before I finally decided to pick it up a few weeks ago from the library. It took me a long time to get around to it–mostly because it seemed like your typical post-tragedy YA novel, and I was never particularly in the mood for depressing emotions and contemporary moaning-and-groaning. And I just didn’t want to read something sad during my first few weeks of summer.

Well I was wrong. If I Stay was so far from your typical contemporary YA novel. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that Forman does so right other than “everything”. From the first page I was connected with Mia’s crazy but sincerely loving family, and not because my family is similar to hers, or that I’ve had the same experiences as they’ve had (in fact, far from it), but because Forman’s writing just does that to you. It’s simple and clean and perfect.

The whole novel takes place, like the summary says, in “one critical day”, but it’s a bit more than that. There are clear memories of Mia’s life before the accident interspersed with her present-day situation, and these transitions are handled and timed perfectly by Forman.

I highly recommend If I Stay to anyone who wants an absorbing, emotional read.

Author Website: http://www.gayleforman.com/
Apparently now there’s a sequel! Where She Went

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Summary: Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Commentary: I was pretty excited to read Grave Mercy–assassin nuns in medieval France? Definitely not something that’s been done before. I was drawn in from the very first chapter, but then my interest sort of petered off, and I’m not exactly sure what went wrong.

While the premise of the novel was certainly interesting, I felt like the author didn’t deliver. I had a hard time connecting emotionally with our narrator, Ismae, whether because of the awkward and kind of stumbling narration, or because she was just kind of flat as a character. We see that she escapes from her horrible arranged marriage, but her transformation to a full-formed character never happens. I wasn’t able to relate to any of her emotions and was never fully pulled into her trials and travails,which means the romance also fell completely flat for me.

I did enjoy the historical aspect of this novel, however, and appreciated the political intrigue between Brittany and France.

Overall, Grave Mercy had a very interesting premise but failed to deliver fully. Really fabulous cover though, I have to say.

Grave Mercy is the first in a series, but I don’t think I’ll be following up with the rest of the novels.

Author Website: http://www.robinlafevers.com/
How did I get this book? The public library!

Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

Summary (from author website): After climate change, on the north shore of Unlake Superior, a dystopian world is divided between those who live inside the wall, and those, like sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone, who live outside. It’s Gaia’s job to “advance” a quota of infants from poverty into the walled Enclave, until the night one agonized mother objects, and Gaia’s parents disappear.

As Gaia’s efforts to save her parents take her within the wall, she faces the brutal injustice of the Enclave and discovers she alone holds the key to a secret code, a code of “birthmarked” babies and genetic merit.

Fraught with difficult moral choices and rich with intricate layers of codes, Birthmarked explores a colorful, cruel, eerily familiar world where a criminal is defined by her genes, and one girl can make all the difference.

Commentary: I’ve always enjoyed reading dystopian novels, and Birthmarked’s premise sounded interesting to me–a society with a sharply divided upper class and lower class, and where a certain quota of children from the lower class are taken every month to be adopted by members of the upper class.

O’Brien’s YA debut was nicely plotted, with all your requisite dystopian features, but I wasn’t seized by the story. To be honest I was just a little bit bored. Everything was a bit predictable, and the true problem at the root of this dystopian society was revealed in a way that wasn’t all that earth-shattering or even exciting. There just didn’t seem to be a true conflict or obstacle that our heroine, Gaia, had to overcome in order to save the society she was a part of–there were plenty of personal and emotional issues that she had to deal with, which I think were handled much better.

This is the 1st book in the trilogy, and I’m not sure that I’ll be picking up the rest of the series. The writing and the story just didn’t draw me in strongly enough.

Author Website: http://www.caraghobrien.com/

Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

Fair Game is the 3rd novel in the Alpha & Omega series by Patricia Briggs. I suggest you start with Cry Wolf

Summary: They say opposites attract, and for werewolves Anna and Charles, this is certainly true. Charles, the pack enforcer, is a dominant alpha – whereas Anna has the power to calm others of her kind. Now that werewolves have dared to reveal themselves to humans, it’s their job to keep the pack in line. The pressure mounts when the FBI requires Charles’ assistance. He’s sent on a mission to Boston with Anna, and they quickly realise that a serial killer is targeting werewolves. And that they’re next on the killer’s list.

My Thoughts: I can always count on Briggs to deliver a fairly satisfying story. What I really enjoy about her progression through her various series (including the Mercy Thompson books) is her ability to continuously evolve her main characters while at the same time bringing in new faces and new kinds of adventures as well as enemies. I think that’s a pretty hard thing to do, especially when you have a series that’s grown to over 5 novels. In this case, anyway, Fair Game is the 3rd in the series begun by Cry Wolf and continued in Hunting Ground.

The growth of character is most obvious in Anna, the protagonist of Fair Game–she’s progressed from a shy, timid, abused young woman to someone stronger and more assertive. I’m glad we got to see more of that in Fair Game. She and Charles have settled into a more comfortable routine for awhile now, but things are starting to slide into the deep end when Charles’ unofficial job as enforcer of his father’s laws begins to wear on him in some scary and deeply depressing ways. That they’re sent on a trip to the East coast to help out the FBI with a serial killer case is almost a blessing, a distraction from everything else that’s been going on.

And there’s a lot going on because the world now knows the truth of what Anna and Charles and their friends are: not human. The so-called “coming out” of the werewolf community to the rest of the world is handled interestingly and fairly realistically, I think, by Briggs. There’s politicking, panic, curiosity, and the whole atmosphere felt a bit like a tension before the explosion–maybe this will be explored more in future books?

The only major criticism I’d have against Briggs is something that I see in a lot of her writing, and is not specific to Fair Game. She will often do a lot of exposition in her novels, where there’s a lot of dialogue between her characters that’s meant to explain some new supernatural concept or relationship to the reader, but it’s done in a fairly heavy-handed way that does not sound natural. It sounds a bit forced at times, but it doesn’t detract from the excitement of the plot.

A good addition to a great series.

Author Website: http://hurog.com/
How did I get this novel?: Ebook!