Mistwood by Leah Cypess

Summary: Everyone tells Isabel that she is the Shifter – the ancient shape-shifting creature who has protected the kings of Samorna for centuries. They need her to be the Shifter. Prince Rokan risked everything when he rode into the Mistwood to summon her to his side; Ven, the magician’s apprentice, has devoted his life to studying her legend; and even Princess Clarisse, who fears and hates her, depends on Isabel’s powers to further her own plans.

But Isabel doesn’t feel like the Shifter. She feels like a lonely human girl, beset by flashes of memory that do more to confuse than to help her. If she is the Shifter, why can’t she change her shape? Why doesn’t she remember what made her flee the castle so many years ago? As she is drawn deeper into a web of magic and assassination, Isabel will have no choice but to look for answers. But her search will lead her to the one question the Shifter hasn’t faced in a thousand years: where does she come from, and what does she really want?

My Thoughts: Mistwood is one of those books I’ve been hearing about all over the Internet, but haven’t had a chance to pick up myself until now. The summary sounded very intriguing, right up my alley. There were a lot of comparisons to Cashore’s writing (Fire, Graceling) so I was pretty excited to read it.

I thought it started out perfectly–strange, quiet, but full of unanswered questions and potential. The writing was spot-on, nothing wasted. I was immediately drawn into the confusion but also strong intent displayed by our narrator, Isabel. Unfortunately, the rest of the story didn’t really live up to my expectations. I never fully connected with any of the characters aside from our protagonist. I didn’t emphasize with the relationship between her and Rokan, and in all honesty was pretty skeptical that there were any emotions there at all. It became too meandering and unstable for me. I appreciate plot twists and surprises as much as the next reader, but you need something to contrast that with, something stable and understandable.

I finished Mistwood but was a little disappointed. The ending and eventual revelation was worth it–the entire book spun out Isabel’s shadowed and forgotten history, and I liked the way Cypess wrapped it up. However the overall atmosphere didn’t click for me; there wasn’t any lasting impression after I closed the cover. I did like Cypess’ style of writing enough to pick up her newest book, Nightspell, from the library.

Angie has a more positive review here.

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

Starcrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Summary: Digger thrives as a spy and sneak-thief among the feuding religious factions of Gerse, dodging the Greenmen who have banned all magic. But when a routine job goes horribly wrong and her partner and lover Tegen is killed, she has to get out of the city, fast, and hides herself in a merry group of nobles to do so.

Accepted as a lady’s maid to shy young Merista Nemair, Digger finds new peace and friendship at the Nemair stronghold–as well as plenty of jewels for the taking. But after the devious Lord Daul catches her in the act of thievery, he blackmails her into becoming his personal spy in the castle, and Digger soon realizes that her noble hosts aren’t as apolitical as she thought… that indeed, she may be at the heart of a magical rebellion.

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed Bunce’s debut novel, A Curse Dark as Gold, and was looking forward to reading whatever she wrote next.

Starcrossed was written in a very different style from Bunce’s first novel, and I’m still not sure whether I completely approve. Then again, the stories and the characters are also completely different, and in fact, reminded me very strongly of a lot of Sherwood Smith’s work. The same sort of plucky, not-exactly-legally-employed heroine, and the large cast of mostly benevolent characters and one devious bad guy. The first person narration also made me think of Smith’s Crown Duel and Wren novels.

Starcrossed started out fairly slowly and I wasn’t sure I was going to stick with it until the action finally started picking up, tying together a lot of foreshadowing and clues that Bunce had spent a lot of time near the beginning laying out. It ended up being an exciting adventure, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Where’d I get this novel? My local public library
Author Website: http://www.elizabethcbunce.com/
Rating:
7 of 10

Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken

For awhile it seemed like Brightly Woven was the newest big hit in the YA world, and I was fairly eager to read it and see what everyone was talking about. I did enjoy Bracken’s debut novel, but probably not as much as most of the YA bloggers out there.

Sydelle Mirabil is living proof that, with a single drop of rain, a life can be changed forever. Tucked away in the farthest reaches of the kingdom, her dusty village has suffered under the weight of a strangely persistent drought. That is, of course, until a wizard wanders into town and brings the rain with him.

In return for this gift, Wayland North is offered any reward he desires—and no one is more surprised than Sydelle when, without any explanation, he chooses her. Taken from her home, Sydelle hardly needs encouragement to find reasons to dislike North. He drinks too much and bathes too little, and if that isn’t enough to drive her to madness, North rarely even uses the magic he takes such pride in possessing. Yet, it’s not long before she realizes there’s something strange about the wizard, who is as fiercely protective of her as he is secretive about a curse that turns his limbs a sinister shade of black and leaves him breathless with agony. Unfortunately, there is never a chance for her to seek answers.

Along with the strangely powerful quakes and storms that trace their path across the kingdom, other wizards begin to take an inexplicable interest in her as well, resulting in a series of deadly duels. Against a backdrop of war and uncertainty, Sydelle is faced with the growing awareness that these events aren’t as random as she had believed—that no curse, not even that of Wayland North, is quite as terrible as the one she herself may carry.

Throughout my reading of Brightly Woven, I was reminded several times of both Dianna Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle and the Miyazaki movie adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle. Both feature a fairly sensible young girl partnered with a slightly wild, mysterious young man. They’re never really 100% positive as to why circumstances have forced them together, but they end up becoming friends feeling affectionate towards each other. I think it’s a formula that works in Bracken’s hands, and the relationship present between Sydelle and North was very well plotted.

I thought Brightly Woven was a great adventure, but I feel like it could have benefited from more detail. I wish it wasn’t so short, mostly because it felt like certain aspects were cut off or could have done with a lot more explanation or discussion in order to make it come more fully alive. Like the romance between Sydelle and North was cute, but it would have been more believable and more romantic had the author taken more time with it.

Overall, Brightly Woven was a fairly exciting adventure-romance, and very suitable for the young adult/teen set. It didn’t rock my world, and it didn’t live up to all the hype I’d heard about it, but it was still enjoyable.

How did I get this novel? My local public library
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
Author Website: http://www.alexandrabracken.com/

Land of the Burning Sands by Rachel Neumeier

Land of the Burning Sands is the second book in the Griffin Mage trilogy by Rachel Neumeier. The first novel is Lord of the Changing Winds.

Gereint has been geas-bound for the past 19 years. To be branded and bound under compulsion of the geas means that Gereint is nothing more than a slave, forced by a magical binding to follow any orders given to him by his master. When the hot desert winds of the griffins sweep over the town of Melentser, burying it under mounds of red sand, Gereint uses the opportunity to try to escape from a life of servitude. However, he doesn’t get far, and after a series of encounters in which his faith in the kindness of humanity is restored, Gereint becomes unwittingly caught up in the war between his own country and the kingdom of the griffins.

During his travels, he meets Tehre, a woman with a genius intellect and penchant for engineering and building, and a curious foreign dignitary named Lord Bertaud, who seems to have some sort of affinity or connection with the griffins. By the time anyone realizes just how dire the situation is with the griffin kingdom, it’s too late, and Gereint must come to terms with the sacrifice he must make for a country that condemned him to slavery so many years ago.

I am so pleased with this sequel. Neumeier really went above and beyond my expectations. Once again I am having trouble writing a decent summary for this book review. The synopsis provided on the back cover of the book is even less interesting, I think, than my sad attempts above. Suffice to say, the plotting and the world that Neumeier has written for her readers is so good that it’s impossible to sum up or describe in a short paragraph.

Land of the Burning Sands started off in a very different direction compared to the first novel in the series. Instead of the young, impressionable, ingenue-type heroine (fairly typical in fantasy fiction) that we had in the first book of the trilogy, we instead have Gereint, a grown man who has endured many hardships and painful experiences. Almost half his life has been spent as a slave; he is no stranger to punishment or humiliation. Gereint’s life is thus in many ways parallel to the current situation of his country, Casmantium, which has recently lost a war agains the griffins and neighboring kingdom Feierabiand. Casmantium has had to concede territory, and things are only continuing to deterioriate.

Gereint’s journey (the plot) and his personality (the characterization) were both completely unpredictable to me, which doesn’t happen to me very often when I read, since I can usually predict a general idea of what’s going to happen in a story, or what kind of character our protagonist will turn out to be. Not so with Burning Sands, an aspect of reading this novel that I really enjoyed. I couldn’t have predicted with any certainty the plot twists and the decisions that Gereint made, and it definitely contributed to the building tension that led up to the climax. Even though it was unpredictable, Neumeier’s story still made sense, something that not all novelists can do. She thoroughly convinced me.

I especially enjoyed the well-formed characters in Land of the Burning Sands. No one was flat or stereotypical, and almost all of them played major parts in the plot. The world building was great–Neumeier does a lot in the traditional fantasy vein (pre-Industrial Revolution type society, magic, Kings, courtly nobility, etc.) but made it her own and I was never bored with her environment. Her brand of magic is also fairly unique, and the way she described it made a lot of sense and helped the continuity of the story.

Additionally, I love Neumeier’s writing style. It’s very unique and different from any other author that I’ve read recently. She just creates a great atmosphere and picture in my head, and I feel like I am right there experiencing the story. To be honest, I thought the plotting of the novel was a little lopsided–it started out fairly slowly, and if it hadn’t been for the perfect way that Neumeier tells the story, I might have been bored with what was happening plot-wise. But she always made it interesting and engrossing.

I am very glad I found this author and I will most definitely continue to follow her career.

How did I get this novel? From my local public library
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, World Building, Sorcery, Magical Creatures
Author Website: http://www.rachelneumeier.com/
Except from Land of the Burning Sands: Read the first chapter here

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Once in awhile, you finish reading a book, you set it down, you contemplate how you’re going to write a review for it, and you know that it will be pretty much near impossible to be coherent at all, because all you want to say is stuff like “Wow–that was awesome, I can’t really explain why–forget that, I can’t even talk or think clearly right now because I haven’t come back to reality yet–you, over there, read this book, now.” The last time this happened to me was 6 months ago after I finished reading Fire by Kristin Cashore. And now, it’s just happened to me again with Cold Magic by Kate Elliott.

Catherine has been raised by her Uncle Jonatan and Aunt Tilly ever since she was orphaned as a small child. Her life is familiar, normal, and easy to understand. She is best friends with her cousin Beatrice, who is only two months younger than her; the two young women attend school at a select academy, where they learn about science and the new technology that is revolutionizing their world. Brand new machines like airships, printing presses, and factories run by combustion are just now emerging in a world previously dominated by feudal-type Princes and Mage Houses where magic, specifically cold magic, has held sway over Europa ever since the Roman Empire was defeated and shunted from the icy northern continent.

Catherine’s world thus consists of lessons at school and teasing Beatrice about her latest crush on the young men at the academy, until one day everything changes. Forced in to a magical contract contrived many years ago by her family and the cold mages of Four Moon House, Catherine, as the eldest daughter in her family, is married essentially against her will to a cold mage so vain, so egotistical and full of his own superiority that he barely seems to acknowledge her presence in the carriage that takes them both away from the only home and family Catherine has ever known. What follows is nothing Catherine ever could have imagined happening to her. Abandoned by everyone she has ever loved, Catherine must set out on her own and discover the truth about her heritage and the rapidly changing forces surrounding her world.

Okay. I thought that was a sufficiently epic and interesting summary. Even so, I haven’t even mentioned half of the well-written characters and twisty plotty adventures that are included in Cold Magic. In an interview with Elliott, the author describes her novel as “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons (which were a small, intelligent, and agile species of dinosaur)”. An incredibly disparate disarray of ideas and genres you say; however, it works so well and is very much held together by a strongly written heroine in Catherine.

I was definitely pulled into this novel by our protagonist. As well, her sisterly/best-friend relationship with her cousin Bee was a very realistic, believable, and enjoyable dynamic that I actually haven’t seen all that much of in young adult novels that aim towards a mostly female demographic. I think a lot of people assume that girls don’t want to read about friendships with girls, which is “booorring”; they want to read about infatuating romances with cute boys. Untrue, I think. Or at least for this girl. So Elliott’s take was very refreshing. Catherine was put into a lot of new situations and I enjoyed how, even though she pretty much had no idea what was going on half the time, she was intelligent and able to use what skills and knowledge she had to pull it together and stand up for herself. Also refreshing; too much of the time I think we get heroines that are annoyingly deer-in-the-headlights at the beginnings of adventures. Even after all the horrible things that happen to her, Catherine is rarely whiny and I very much liked her voice in the narration.

The plotting and total changes in scenery and surroundings that Elliott put Catherine through was also very impressive. Catherine basically begins in a lower-middle-class home in the city and travels through countryside and is even pulled into an alternate world (the spirit world, as they call it) at one point and meets a very diverse cast of characters. The universe that Catherine lives in is essentially an alternate history version of our own with a bit of fantasy tossed in; after the Roman Empire sank into itself, the majority of the European continent (or Europa, as they call it) came under the power of petty, feudal-era-type Princes and Lords, who were balanced by the respected power of the magical Houses. A lot of the geography is the same (there is a map included at the beginning of the book) but countries like England, France, and Spain don’t exist, and people of different ethnicities and different cultures have mixed together in new ways, creating a brand-new history.

With the introduction of combustion technology and steam-driven mechanics, Cold Magic is a new addition to the growing genre of “steampunk fantasy,” which I, before this novel, didn’t find particularly enticing. I’ve read Leviathan (Scott Westerfeld), Clockwork Heart (Dru Pagliassotti) and The Gaslight Dogs (Karin Lowachee) but I only had lukewarm experiences with books in the genre. Ah, Mortal Engines (Philip Reeve) was good. But Cold Magic is definitely the best example of the genre I’ve read so far.

Along with the personal journey of our heroine, the reader is basically immersed in a very fluidly changing culture that includes ideas about socio-economic divides, power and how it should be wielded, democratic representation, revolution, and the role of science and technology in a changing society. A lot of really interesting ideas, and I am really so impressed by how Elliott wove it all together. This is the first book of hers that I’ve read, and I’m really looking forward to checking out her other books. I think she also phrased the little romance perfectly, in an understated, kind of wistful way that I really enjoy and not all authors can do well. No bodice-ripping here, sorry if that’s your thing.

In every aspect–adventure, fantasy, characters, and romance–Elliott hit all the right buttons for me and I am only sorry that I will have to wait so long for the sequel. I believe it’s going to be a trilogy, and the ending of Cold Magic and the happenings within have set us up very nicely for a long arc of adventure. I am really just so impressed and floored by Elliott’s writing and storytelling abilities; I have found a new favorite author to follow and I really can’t wait for what she comes up with next.

How I got this book: The author, Kate Elliott, provided me with an Advanced Reading Copy.
When does it come out? September 9, 2010
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk, Alternate History, Young Adult Fiction, Adventure
Publisher: Orbit Books, I first heard about Cold Magic through this publisher’s website; I basically want to read every book they have on their publishing schedules.
Author Website: www.kateelliott.com
Also, her blog, where you have the chance to win an ARC of Cold Magic: http://kateelliott.livejournal.com/