Tristan is the third generation of his family to pursue boxing, so when his first bout ends in failure, he faces both his own disappointment as well as the disapproval of his father and grandfather. Almost immediately, Tristan’s parents decide that he should spend the summer with his grandparents. Though he has conflicted feelings about his granddad, who is tough on him, but he is quite fond of Nana, who has built a strong relationship with Tristan infused with storytelling.Tristan also shared a love for stories with his friend Eddie, whose death he is still mourning and blames himself for. Tristan holds tight to Eddie’s journal, which contains the West African and African-American stories that mean so much to both of them. It’s here that the magic of the novel begins: Tristan has known since he received the journal that there’s something odd about it (for starters, it glows!).
Tristant Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky centers on stories, and it establishes that focus early as Tristan tells his tale directly to the reader:
“They didn’t want to hear the rest . . .
“Oh, you do?
“Well, what if I told you that I went to war over my best friend’s glowing journal? . . . Would you believe me?” (loc. 72).
Naming is also important. Tristan constantly bemoans the inappropriateness of having “Strong” as a last name when he considers himself to be a coward, weak, a failure. He knows that being a Strong means he’s expected to be brave and to work hard, but he’s not sure he can live up to those expectations. Tristan and the other characters in the book constantly remind each other to be careful with names and with stories because “stories are powerful magic” (loc. 656).They avoid saying their enemies’ names whenever possible so as not to evoke them, and Tristan comes to use stories as a weapon in his arsenal that is stronger even than his fists.
Tristan’s journey to mythological MidPass begins when Gum Baby, “a doll Anansi used to trap an African fairy while he was on a quest” (loc. 293), steals Eddie’s journal, and Tristan pursues her. Their battle ultimately ends in the midst of the Bottle Trees on his grandparents’ farm when Tristan, in an attempt to retrieve the journal, punches one of the bottles and unleashes Uncle C, a demon, though a hole that joins the ground under his feet and the sky of MidPass. Tristan and Gum Baby fall through the hole Tristan has made into a mythological world, and they immediately have to escape bone ships and the threat of the Maafa preying upon the Midfolk. He meets a brave young woman named Ayanna and legendary gods like Brer Fox and John Henry who help him understand the seriousness of the situation.
There’s so much to love here. Of course the mythology, and particularly stories that we (or at least I) aren’t as familiar with, is a big draw. But watching Tristan’s very real personal journey—his consideration of what bravery means, of when violence is appropriate, of what it means to know one’s story—is as compelling as the focus on the gods. Tristan is still trying to reconcile what has happened in the reality of his life back home, where he’s seeing a counselor who talks to him about not “hid[ing] from [his] fears.” Mr. Richardson says, “we have to be able to talk about them, or else they’ll fester like poison, eating us from the inside” (loc. 873). We see similar wisdom from the legendary figures Tristan meets: “Brer Fox told me we can’t harp on past mistakes” (loc. 884). As Tristan begins to reconcile the lessons of these two worlds, his confidence and agency grow.
Watching Tristan contend with symbols of slavery—the Fetterlings, Brand Flies, and bone ships, among others—is a powerful thread through the novel. For Tristan, considering that past has been a part of life, instilled by Nana, who reminds him that “A lot of times . . . little facts get smudged out of the history books. If you gon’ tell a story, you better be sure you’re telling the right one” (loc. 959). It’s in MidPass that Tristan learns to apply so many of the lessons his Nana and Eddie taught him, where the ideas that seemed abstract take on a concrete and immediate urgency. Kwame Mbalia here unites intention and execution in the fabulous Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.
Sullivan’s young adult novel uses this story, Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?,” as a springboard for a story about class division, corruption, and power. At the novel’s heart is Kateri, the daughter of the powerful king who rules a small kingdom built on a formerly lush oasis. Now, the kingdom suffers because of a murderous drought that requires strict rationing of water for its citizens.
Kateri’s father has raised her in luxury but with a hatred for the Desert Boys, a wild gang of outcasts who killed her mother and infant brother when Kateri was a child. She has trained as a warrior both to defend her home—she promised her mother that she would take care of her people and rule with kindness—and to seek vengeance on those who broke her family.
Kateri lives in the world that Stockton first imagined, one where justice is meted out by chance. Kateri’s father forces criminals into an arena, and they are given a choice between two doors: the first holds a bloodthirsty tiger, and the second holds some sort of treasure. As the novel opens, a young Desert Boy is in the midst of his choice, and his prize is the cart of goods that he had tried to steal. Kateri watches as the boy makes away with the object of his theft . . . and then comes to realize that her father had controlled the fate of this criminal all along.
Since Kateri is old enough to marry, her father has set up another series of competitions: she is to fight twelve potential suitors. If she wins the battle, the suitor is banished from the kingdom. If he wins, the suitor will marry her. As he does with the sentencing of criminals, Kateri’s father controls her fate, wresting from her the power she thought she had earned.
The plot really ramps up as Kateri begins to realize the full scope of her father’s betrayal and seeks to regain control over her life by leaving the kingdom and seeking training among the Desert Boys. Along the way, she comes to see herself, her father, and her world hold depths—good and bad—she had not dreamed.
While Sullivan’s novel kept my attention throughout, and I appreciated the world building and mythology that she weaves into the story, I was disappointed by the predictability of the plot. Kateri is the typical strong female protagonist whose epiphanies about the world around her spur her to work for change and to make a series of correct decisions. Those epiphanies come so easily that they are nearly instantaneous. Her training montage—one of my favorite elements of any action book or movie (think The Karate Kid or Rocky IV)—is enjoyable but also so, so quick. She picks up incredibly difficult skills in a day because she is so preternaturally gifted. The novel’s revelations progress as expected for those who have read this type of YA novel before, which means that moments meant to have great emotional resonance fall, unfortunately, short. Tiger Queen is a pleasant enough read but not one that offers anything new . . . or anything as complex and sinister as its source material.
These dueling sister towns in Washington hold a sort of joint claim to fame: Christie Romney’s Unicorns vs. Dragons YA teen fantasy series (which is set in Carthage) and Caleb Sloat’s band Rainy Day Knife Fight (Caleb, Billy’s uncle, grew up in—and escaped from—Rome).
The world here is gritty; both teenagers are familiar with poverty and hunger, and both are outcasts who are deeply lonely. Billy’s grandmother has raised him in a home of hoarding and neglect, while Lydia’s father Larry is a single dad. After her mother died in a car accident in the midst of abandoning them, Lydia has built emotional walls around herself, choosing loneliness over vulnerability. Billy, conversely, is constantly reaching out only to be turned away by everyone. When Billy approaches Lydia after the consolidation of their schools, Lydia responds with her typical bristly comeback . . . but she also leaves the door open to friendship.
We come to know Billy as someone who is constantly trying. He tries to be better, to learn more, to be kinder, more helpful. He relies on the “twenty-four-hour AA meeting channel” (loc. 284) and television therapists for advice because no one in his life cares enough to offer any. Lydia, meanwhile, has walled herself off from her father just as she has from everyone else. Her only hope seems to come in the dancing that serves as her emotional outlet and her inspiration.
The friendship between Billy and Lydia, which is absolutely my favorite part of the book, grows slowly as their world becomes stranger. The leader of the U.S. is the King, and his behavior becomes more outrageous as the plot unfolds (yes, there are some shadows of our real political situation here!). Billy’s house turns against him, disintegrating and seeming to hold something threatening in its walls. Lydia is followed by a shadowy figure of which she can’t quite get a clear view. And then there’s the fog, which grows thicker and smells and becomes more malicious as the story continues. Through all of this growing magic, Billy and Lydia nurture—sometimes grudgingly—their friendship, fighting through the easy urge to turn against each other when their lives go wrong. Watching them come to know each other and to understand the other’s weaknesses and strengths is a beautiful journey.
I really appreciated the gradual growth of the dark magic that surrounds Rome and Carthage: there’s much that’s sinister in this novel, but none of the fantasy evil overshadows the malevolence rooted firmly in reality, in the casual cruelty of the people who are supposed to care most for these teenagers or in the easy aggression of their peers. Amy Reed is brilliant at making us feel the loneliness and sadness against which Billy and Lydia fight, and because that depression is so vivid, I found the moments of hope and courage and earnestness to be so, so moving. The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World isn’t easily categorized into a single genre and should therefore appeal to a multitude of readers.
The book opens after Nikolai’s abdication, when the family has been moved to Tobolsk, Siberia. Anastasia, the 16-year-old narrator, is known as Shvibzik, or imp, and her nickname reveals a great deal about her character. Nastya is a strong-willed and mischievous trickster who enjoys entertaining her family to maintain a sense of normality and playing pranks on the soldiers who are their captors. Brandes does a brilliant job establishing the strong bonds within this family, which includes Nastya’s parents, her three sisters, and her 13-year-old brother Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. Nastya’s father, Nikolai, acts with a humility surprising for his prior role, and he urges Nastya to honor life, to find forgiveness, and to prioritize the Russian people. Alexei was also a strong character for me, dealing with the pain of his hemophilia and the loss of his destiny as tsar with bravery and grit.
The world building is just great, and Brandes’s vision of magic centers on spell ink, a rare substance that allows spell masters and their apprentices (like Nastya) to “write” their spells as a way of enacting them. This grounding of magic works well both to expand the story of the Romanovs and to anchor it in practical concerns that occupy much of Nastya’s thoughts.
Brandes telegraphs clearly a romance with a Bolshevik soldier who serves as one of the family’s guards; it took me a while to warm to the authenticity of the match, but eventually (no spoilers here!) I appreciated the complexity of its development. Successful for me, from the beginning, is Nastya’s character arc. Watching her struggle, with her family, to acclimate herself to her new living situation, to accept that her family does not have control over their own destiny, is quite moving. Her constant attempts to be worthy of her former title and of her father’s care enhance this already-nuanced character.
The novel’s basis in history allows those familiar with the legend to appreciate the character development and the addition of magic and those unfamiliar with the stories to feel firmly grounded in what happened. (An excellent Author’s Note is also helpful!) While I don’t want to give anything away, I think that the way Brandes played with the mythology surrounding Anastasia is incredibly smart. This strong YA novel bridging history and fantasy is a great addition to the collection of works studying the royal family. Look for Nadine Brandes’s Romanov on May 7!
In a structure that I appreciated, these tales from Legendary Leaders continue throughout the novel, reinforcing the feeling that we’re reading a story rooted in folk tales and history and reinforcing the experiences and lessons of the book’s protagonists.
Saeed launches into the story of Aladdin and Jasmine a few days after they’ve met, alternating between their points of view. Fans of the movie know that Jasmine meets Aladdin, a “street rat,” when she has disguised herself to explore the “true” Agrabah--with his knowledge of the streets, the impoverished orphan is able to keep her safe. Now, however, Aladdin has used his first wish from the genie to transform him into Prince Ali of Ababwa, a show off who is failing to impress Princess Jasmine.
For a while, Saeed follows the movie, which is both satisfying for fans and a little frustrating for those who want more. The author does effectively create a character in Jasmine who yearns for real leadership opportunities: she is frustrated with her father’s distant and cold rule over Agrabah and wishes that she could act as her deceased mother did to bring real compassion to her kingdom.
When Aladdin and Jasmine take off on their magic carpet ride (who else is singing “A Whole New World” in their heads?), Saeed begins to build her own facet of the narrative. Jasmine requests a detour to visit Prince Ali’s home in Ababwa, and Aladdin uses a loophole to convince Genie to make it happen. It’s in Ababwa that the couple truly connects and also begins to develop a firm idea of what it means to be both a good leader and a good person.
I appreciated so much the details of the kingdom of Ababwa, and the people Aladdin and Jasmine encounter teach them a plethora of lessons throughout their visit. It’s here, however, that I most felt my distance from the young readers at whom this book is aimed: the overly explicit expression of neatly encapsulated morals to the story left me wishing for more subtlety. These lessons fit more in the sections from Legendary Leaders but feel less an organic part of the main narrative. Saeed takes on compassion, economic disparity, education, truth, the importance of actions . . . watching Aladdin and Jasmine grow and seeing Jasmine become more determined to take on a leadership role in Agrabah (go, feminism!) offers clear character arcs but left me wishing for the more complex and nuanced Amal Unbound.
I do think many young readers will enjoy Aisha Saeed’s Aladdin: Far from Agrabah in advance of the release of the new film, and the novel will certainly enrich their experience.
Thank you to Partner Netgalley for my advance copy of this novel. I loved The Belles and was so excited to read the sequel, The Everlasting Rose. Set in the dystopian world of Orléans , this novel reveals the way that quests for beauty and power can spiral out of control as the quest to become the most beautiful and most powerful gets in the way of compassion, equity, and all forms of understanding.
The Belles opens in a world where most people are born gris, meaning that their natural complexion is gray, with red eyes, straw-like hair, and gray whiskers on their faces. This condition is both unattractive and painful. The only exception to this natural state is the Belles, who are born lovely with all different complexions, shapes, and demeanors, but who are all able to use the power within their blood to help others beautify themselves. The Belles are raised to beautify others, and when they come of age, that becomes their duty. In order to avoid this natural but uncomfortable state of being gray, the citizens of Orléans must have routine beauty procedures done, which can only be performed by the Belles. They pay high prices and suffer extreme pain to endure the beauty procedures. Camille Beauregard and her sisters are coming of age at the beginning of The Belles, and they become the group of Belles able to assist all of the people of Orléans, including the royal family, with these procedures. However, as Camille gets deeper into her journey, she quickly realizes that the world is not as it seems and that her talents can be misused and can cause harm.
The Everlasting Rose picks up where The Belles left off, and it captivates the reader immediately. I loved the main characters in the novel and found myself swept up in their riveting adventure, rooting for them to succeed, even though they were facing staggering odds. Camellia Beauregard leads us through the complex world of the royal family as Princess Sophia makes her way toward the throne. Camille discovers that she has powers she did not realize she possessed, but she also realizes that she can be forced and manipulated into doing things that are horrendous. Her unlikely companion, Rémy, and her sister Edel, are both fascinating supporting characters with their own agendas and desires. Additionally, the teacup dragons who travel with them are so precious and fun!
I love the way Clayton demonstrates the power of suggestion, the pressure to fit in, and the role of gossip and the media in what shapes society. I also love her commentary on the way that subliminal messages and peer pressure can lead us all to feel that there is some kind of artificial beauty ideal that we should achieve-- and that the pursuit of that false ideal can destroy us or cause us to destroy others.
Camille's courage, determination, loyalty, and resolute unwillingness to back down make her the kind of woman I hope to be and hope for my daughters to be. She is ready to bring about change, and she faces the uncertain future with resilience and passion.
In short, I cannot wait for Book Three!
Enter: Edgar’s muse. Yes, his muse, Lenore, comes into his life as the physical embodiment of a grotesque drawing, there to provoke and bully Poe into accepting his affinity for death and all things Gothic. Lenore can be seen not only by Eddy, but by everyone, and as she moves through his world, she unsettles everyone because of her ghastly appearance and her disturbing behavior. The novel moves through the alternating perspectives of Poe and Lenore, and her presence is a definite reminder of the place of women (and, particularly, dead women) in Poe’s stories, of women’s morbid hold on his imagination and of “the beauty in horror” (loc. 376).
In The Raven’s Tale, Winters takes the historical facts of Poe’s life and embeds them into a world reflective of the fantasy he embraces in his writing, one where ghosts and spirits are real, where his muse torments him (and competes with a second, more conventional, male muse), and where Poe’s sporadic use of alcohol makes him unable to write . . . because it makes his muse sleep. Through the novel, Poe fights his inclination toward darkness because he does not think he will find acceptance if he follows that path.
The strength of this book lies in its enthusiasm for its subject matter. Winters clearly loves Poe, his life, and his poetry, and she immerses the reader in his style. This immersion happens most clearly in Lenore’s chapters, where Winters writes in mimicry of Poe: “I awaken in the shadows, ravenous for words, hungering for delicacies dripping with dread” (loc. 155). As Lenore strengthens, the style intensifies, demonstrating the increasing bond between artist and muse. Winters’s describes her research in an extensive Author’s Note, which is fascinating in its consideration of the connections between this novel and Poe’s life.
Though I found many elements of The Raven’s Tale appealing--including the grounding in historical detail and the incorporation of Poe’s early writing process--the novel didn’t completely work for me. The characters fell short: though I love fantasy (the more complex and strange the world, the better), I never felt as if I had my footing in this realm of embodied muses, and Poe himself felt more like a collection of character traits and information than a fully realized character.
The Raven’s Tale, which will be published on April 16, 2019, is a solid choice for those readers interested in learning more about Poe or beginning to imagine how he embraced the darkness that came to dominate his art. It did not, however, succeed in capturing my imagination or the spirit that makes Poe’s works so captivating for readers.
At the opening of the novel, Rhen, the daughter of an Upper society mother and a Lower father, is fighting with her Da to find a cure for a crippling illness that is afflicting residents, including her mother, of Lower villages. She yearns to be seen by those in power, the ones who could make a difference for those who are suffering. She dreams of breaking out of the cage of her gender, which seems to have sentenced her to—at best—a life as a politician’s wife without choices who must hide her intelligence and scientific aptitude. She pines for Lute, a fisherman who wants only to care for his family and to make a simple living.
With her cousin Seleni, a member of Upper society, Rhen does her best to work toward each of these goals while respecting the bounds of her world. There is, however, a catalyst that causes her to make a leap, disguise herself as a boy, and enter the Labyrinth. To Best the Boys reminded me, at different times, of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but it establishes a new angle on that YA trend.
Weber’s world building here is just brilliant, juxtaposing the science that consumes Rhen with a fantasy world containing sirens, ghouls, and basilisks. I so appreciated Rhen’s coming of age as she struggles to define who she is in a society that gives women few choices. Weber balances Rhen’s personality with her cousin Seleni’s desires, and we see Seleni focusing on a quite different life for herself. The right to carve one’s path, regardless of what that path is, is a major theme in the novel.
The writing is strong, and I found myself marking quotations and beautiful phrasing throughout the book. The book’s strength doesn’t lie in surprises—I found this type of plot, including the quest within the labyrinth, Rhen’s self discovery, and the romantic relationships, to be fairly predictable. Instead, the quality of the details of world and of the character distinguish this book from others like it.
A strong standalone novel that is both rich and complete, Mary Weber’s To Best the Boys will satisfy readers seeking fantasy, action, and some excellent feminism. Great YA read!
The Gilded Wolves opens in a late 1800s Paris imbued with magic. An established crew of diverse characters successfully has completed a series of missions and is, at the novel’s beginning, in the midst of another. In this world, certain people are adept at Forging, a sort of magical engineering, and a circle of Houses control the world. Each House represents a different facet of magic connected to fragments of the Tower of Babel.
The novel moves between several perspectives. Séverin, the leader of the crew, has been cast out of the wealth and power associated with his line, the House of Vanth. He was raised in a series of foster homes, each dominated by a father who represented one of the seven deadly sins. With him through his childhood was Tristan, his foster brother, who relied on Séverin’s strength to help him survive each home. Next is Laila, a seductive, mysterious, and skilled woman from India who maintains an alternate identity as L’Egnime. Then comes Zofia, a brilliant Forger and victim of anti-Semitism whose objective approach to her world, including insight into numerical patterns, points toward some positioning on the autism spectrum. From the Philippines, Enrique, the final member of the group, can’t Forge but who makes up for his lack of ability with a dedication to history that informs many of their missions.
Each character has a distinct goal through the narrative, separate from the treasure they seek together, and each has a signature characteristic that acts as a sort of flag through the novel: Séverin, for example, chews cloves, Tristan has a gigantic tarantula that horrifies his friends, and so on. While these traits set the characters apart, they do at times seem to stand in for deeper development of individual characters. In general, The Gilded Wolves, in comparison with Chokshi’s other works, relied more on explicit explanation, on telling more than showing. This was, I think, in service of the plot, and Chokshi certainly devoted space to characters’ back stories, but I found myself wishing that the characterization were more nuanced.
As in all heist narratives, certain plot points require great suspension of disbelief: characters are able to foretell other characters’ actions with great accuracy or make speculative leaps just in time to allow their plan to continue. I am, as I said, all in for heists, so I happily suspended my disbelief and just went with it. The book’s fast-moving, compelling plot centers on a series of McGuffins that lay the groundwork for the next novel but are ultimately unimportant in comparison to the group dynamics at the book’s center.
The strength of the central crew and the solid heist plot make up for some shortcuts in other elements of the book. Overall, therefore, I’d recommend The Gilded Wolves, which has magic and Paris and humor and romance and vivid historical touches . . . plenty of good content for this compelling, fun YA read.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
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