Monday, February 22, 2016

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee Review

Title: The Queen of the Night: A Novel
Author: Alexander Chee
Age Group: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: N/A
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

Do you enjoy ghost stories with unusual formatting? How about historical fiction? Kickbutt heroines who just might be telling the truth--or not? How about drama, secrets, and political intrigue that might just be rooted in real history? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, The Queen of the Night just might be the book that you're looking for.

I went into this novel unsure of what exactly to expect--I was excited, and happy, knowing only that The Queen of the Night fictionally documented a young ingenue trying to make her way up the social ladder throughout the world in the late 1800s. And look at that gorgeous cover! It was beautiful.

To be honest, I was a little intimidated at first. Clocking in at nearly six hundred pages, this epic novel literally defines epic: It was gigantic, and divided into five different, but interlocking, parts. But then I actually started reading, and then it was over. I was sucked into Chee's world at once, hypnotized by Lilliet's tale, a rags to riches story told in reverse. The pacing was breakneck, immediate--it was like Lilliet herself was there, holding me hostage, spellbound as I was by her narrative.

And then there were the characters themselves: Lillet, the gorgeous soprano that longs for freedom and independence. I really admired her--she was a woman who kicked butt and took names and refused to be ashamed of fighting to make a name for herself. It was refreshing to have a male author bring such blase, careless abandon to a female character--it was an amazing story, because of her and her alone. But what also made the book shine was, and bear with me here, the love triangle.

I know what you guys are thinking. I've gone off the deep end! But for real, hear me out: Lilliet's struggle to remain free and unfettered was partially so compelling because of her pursuers, the first a tenor, intent on posessing her by any means necessary, and the other, a sweet, gentle composer who longs to love her. Caught between them and her desperate pursuit for personal freedom, she discovers that even the brightest dreams can be thrown awry by that cruel mistress, Fate.

What really sold this novel for me though, was not the premise, nor the characters, though both certainly helped. It was the research. Almost every single scene, every single historical figure mentioned in the novel, large or small, has been meticulously researched to the best of the author's considerable ability. Books like this are the ones that made me fall in love with historical fiction in the first place. Absolutely stunning. That being said, with all the historical figures, it was difficult to keep track of them all, and it muddled the narrative a little bit as it went on.

A superlative sophomore novel nonetheless, Alexander Chee has absolutely outdone himself--a definite favorite of 2016! Next on deck: Medici's Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite De Valois by Sophie Perinot!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman Review

Title: The Dark Days Club
Author: Alison Goodman
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy/Horror
Series: Lady Helen, book one
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

I'll start off this review by saying I may have picked up this book just a little bit biased. I read Goodman's first novel, Eon: The Last Dragoneye, and I loved it. My husband read both Eon and its sequel, Eona. But that being said, the debut novel in a new series--being pitched as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jane Austen, mashed together--really, really packs a punch. (For all of you Jane Austen loving-skeptics out there, it's worth reading, I promise!) This is the first new book I've read for the new year that came out this year, and I'd been looking forward to this novel ever since before it came out.

Where do I start? I loved the pacing--it was breakneck, and I was sucked into Helen's darkly glittering world immediately. The world-building in this book is where it could have gone wrong, but Goodman, as I expected, pulled it off. And I haven't even started on the characters yet. As if I was not already in love with this book already, the characters were the part of this novel that really made me love this novel. It was dark, meaty, gory, and utterly fantastic. I loved every single moment of it.

Lady Helen Wrexhall is an orphaned young woman who wants everything a girl her age is supposed to want: Marriage, a house, and some children. Sounds like a typical Regency upbringing, right? Well, that all changes when she discovers that there is another world entwined with her own, full of darkness, danger, and company she isn't supposed to be keeping. I loved Lady Helen--she was a worthy heroine in this book. She was independent, witty, and couragerous--in fact, she reminded me a lot of a few of Austen's heroines. And then there's the mysterious, darkly handsome Lord Carlston, who seems to know more about her and her family than she does.

It was also really fun to see the Regency era, documented in such beautiful and lovely detail. You can really tell from the writing that Goodman has done painstaking, expansive research on the era and the culture that stemmed from it. This book was like Jane Austen on steroids, complete with political intrigue, and with a lot of dark, frightening creatures, twists and turns, and of course, secrets aplenty!

This book has something for everyone: glittering balls, a lot of food descriptions, handsome young men, a kickbutt heroine, darkness and evil around every corner. Honestly, as I said, it's probably my favorite book of 2016! Absolutely amazing! Next on deck: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Dark Shimmer by Donna Jo Napoli Review

Title: Dark Shimmer
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: N/A
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

Donna Jo Napoli is a titan in the fantasy fiction industry--I've previously read several of both her fantasy and historical fiction works, so when I saw Dark Shimmer, beckoning to me from a high shelf in my local library, I knew that I had to take it home with me. Plus, that cover! Would ya just look at it? I was immediately enchanted, and I was so excited to read it. Plus, it's a fairy tale retelling--yay! I'm such a sucker for any kind of retelling, but most especially fairy tales.

Though personally I'm not a big fan of Snow White, because it freaked me out when I was a kid, (I mean, come on, evil stepmother trying to kill her young stepdaughter over beauty? Yikes!) I was really excited when I saw Dark Shimmer, because not only was it a retelling, it was also set in medieval Italy! Bonus points for actually having historical accuracy!

Dolce is a monster, a freak, unloved by all on her home island of Torcello, except her mother. In a land full of dwarves, she is a monstrosity, a princess living in an isolated kingdom. She has no friends, and so she turns to her trade, mirror-making, for comfort. But when her beloved mother perishes, she discovers that love may not be so far away after all. She marries, and for a while, lives happily with her family. That is, until she begins to lose her mind in pursuit of being the fairest of them all...

Where do I begin with this book? First of all, I loved the setting. I liked that Napoli took a fantastic concept and rooted it in a real place--it really helped me imagine the book better, if that makes any sense. The book's pacing was absolutely breakneck--I was so sucked into Dolce's story that I literally had to make myself stop in the middle of the night so I'd have more to read the next day. Napoli's writing, lush and dark and beautiful, was hypnotic and often frightening, but told in such a way I couldn't look away from it.

And then, of course, there's the adaption of the fairy tale itself: Through Dolce, we see the vengeful, spiteful stepmother who stops at nothing to be the most beautiful of them all. But at the same time, I couldn't hate her--my heart broke for her. It was so painful for me to watch Dolce's progression into madness, her love for her husband and stepdaughter twisted beyond recognition. As the novel went on, I was torn between pity and anger. This book was so painful and heartbreaking.

Simply put, whether you've read any of Napoli's work before or not, Dark Shimmer is a fitting, bloody homage to its inspiration, the fairy tale Snow White--I loved every moment of it, from beginning to end. Next on deck: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine Review

Title: The Impostor Queen
Author: Sarah Fine
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: High Fantasy
Series: The Impostor Queen, book one
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

I was first introduced to Sarah Fine's work a few years back, and I devoured her Guards of the Shadowlands series. Her Phantom of the Opera retelling, of Metal and Wishes, was also excellent. So naturally, when I saw that her newest book was at my library, I walked away from the building happy and excited that I'd gotten my hands on a book I'd been really looking forward to reading. I'll start with the good news: It had all of Fine's usual suspects: beautiful writing, breakneck pacing, and dark, meaty twists and storytelling. But there were other parts of the novel that really fell short for me.

I have to honestly say that while I actually wanted to love this new installment, for some reason... It just fell flat for me. Don't get me wrong--it was enjoyable. It was a good book. But maybe my expectations were a little too high, because I really feel that Fine was reaching high for something, and didn't quite grasp it. I enjoyed the pacing, the characters, and the premise, and the awesome fight scenes were a bonus that I was so happy to see, because that's one of the best things about her writing--it's so atmospheric and evocative. But the world-building was really vague and the world was kind of hard for me to picture.

The premise was what drew me to this book in the first place, honestly: Elli, the main character, is the next queen of Kupari, set to be trained in the fire and ice magic that will be inside her body when the incumbent queen, called a Valtia, perishes. This all happens--but the magic doesn't come. She is forced to leave the city, the center of her universe, fleeing for her life. In the Outlands, she discovers a new way of life--and that war is brewing. She must decide the fate of her people, all the while navigating through a political game of chess. I really enjoyed her as a main character--in the beginning she is naive, an inquisitive, innocent young woman, but she really developed nicely as the book went on.

Despite that, though, this first installment in a new series had a lot of meaty themes to it: family, ethics, spiced up with a lot of political intrigue and magic. As I said before, I really wanted to love this novel, and I did love it--parts of it. Some parts of the novel felt too vague and unfinished, and hopefully these issues will be cleared up in the next novel. Next on deck: Dark Shimmer by Donna Jo Napoli!