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.
Viviane’s sister Natalia and Natalia’s daughter Maxine take in Raven, supporting her as she struggles to recover her memories and her sense of self. She also balances the travails of high school, where she takes on mean girls, a romantic interest in Tommy Torres, . . . and a realization that she is hearing both strange voices and other people’s thoughts. Oh, and her shadow sometimes looks like a raven. The mystery of Raven’s past and powers grows as she comes to rely more on her new family, whose support and love for Raven was my favorite part of the book.
As Raven works to reconcile the slow emergence of her memory, the reader comes to know her snarky personality, sympathy for the underdog, and total girl power. The narrative is layered with humor, a respectful treatment of voodoo, and nods to the greater DC mythology. Garcia and Picolo have created a great merging of story and art, with the beautiful purple wash of the book providing a gorgeous reinforcement of the central story’s tone and as a nod to its protagonist. Solid graphic novel introduction to this superhero backstory.
At the novel’s center is an alternate reality that I, for one, would love to live in. The winner of the 2016 U. S. Presidential election was Ellen Claremont, a blonde, divorced Texan with a second husband and mixed-race kids who is seriously dedicated to liberal causes. Our protagonist is her son, Alex Claremont-Diaz, a college student who is ready to launch his own political career upon graduation. Alex is driven, brilliant, mouthy, and a social icon for the country along with his older sister June and their best friend Nora, the granddaughter of the Vice President. Together, the White House Trio plays with the media, throws amazing parties-that-are-fundraisers, and begins working on Ellen’s reelection campaign.
Everything is going smoothly until the Trio’s attendance at a royal wedding. Alex and his friends travel to England where Alex dreads seeing his nemesis, Prince Henry. Since their first meeting, when Henry asked his staff to get rid of Alex, Alex has loathed Henry, his list of crown-approved hobbies and interests, and his ridiculously good looks. When they face off during the reception for Henry’s brother and his new wife, Alex and Henry cause an international incident. After the pair creates some unfavorable headlines, the two governments craft a plan to convince the world that the two are best friends. That plan goes awry, however, when romance blooms (love it!).
I absolutely adored this novel. McQuiston does a beautiful job building intriguing, realistic, nuanced characters who are relatable, even though they’re in the White House and Buckingham Palace. (Also, somewhat trivially, I loved it because Alex is a perfect fictional descendant of his namesake Alexander Hamilton, with whom I--along with the rest of the world--am obsessed because of the musical.) The romance is the perfect balance of steamy and tender, and the subplots behind the main storyline are thoughtful and brilliant. I picked up my Kindle, not knowing what to expect, and had a hard time putting it down. Please pick up Red, White, & Royal Blue as soon as you can and love it as much as I do.
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!
Nira lives with her parents and her grandmother in Canada—her family escaped from Guyana in search of safety and security but had to leave without their money. As in many novels about the children of immigrants, Nira walks the line between appreciating her parents’ culture and yearning to blend in with her classmates at her new school. As the only brown girl, Nira feels both incredibly conspicuous and tragically invisible, discounted by everyone but her best friend Emily. Her one escape is her music. Though her parents have decided that she will become a doctor and therefore needs to focus only on her studies, Nira convinced them to buy her a used trumpet, which she taught herself to play via YouTube. When Nira plays, she expresses all of the love, conflict, and confusion that dominate her life.
A brilliant student, Nira vies always to meet the high expectations of her family. She always, however, falls short. After her family emigrated, her father’s brother Raj brought his family to Canada as well, taking advantage of a new loophole that allowed him to escape with his bank account intact. The brothers’ relationship is one of constant comparison: of belongings, of ambition, of their daughters’ academics. Nira’s cousin Farah attends a private school where she blends in with the “Farahbots,” other wealthy girls who share their heritage and culture. Anchoring both girls is Grandma, one of my favorite characters. Grandma is wise, funny, and realistic about the challenges Nira faces as she struggles to find her place. Most of the time, Grandma sits back and lets her family figure things out for themselves, but when she intervenes, she’s a “puppet master” who pulls all the right strings (loc. 664).
Though Nira fights against the superficial judgments of others, she does herself fall prey to judging based on appearances. Much of the novel involves Nira learning to peel back layers, to understand that everyone has secret fears and hopes. Her friendship with Emily changes as they begin to invite others to her group—much to Nira’s chagrin—and Nira must deal with feeling pushed out of the relationships that anchor her. Emily becomes close to McKenzie, a popular girl whose constant misunderstandings about Nira—she’s Hindi, she’s Muslim, she’s from India, and SO many more—and Nira can’t understand how Emily can look past McKenzie’s prejudiced behavior. Nira’s love for music leads her to know Noah, a popular boy in the jazz band. Nira decided early on that Noah is out of her league, so she suppresses her crush in favor of being his friend. Eventually, Farah (despite Nira’s best efforts) joins this friend group, and Nira must strive to figure otu where she fits in this new arrangement of five.
All of these elements are made essential by Deen’s writing: even when, as a reader, I became frustrated with characters, I understood their perspective. Deen crafts characters of such complexity that we understand both why Nira wants new, name-brand clothes and why the entire idea is anathema to her parents. We understand why Grandma insists on making tea in every situation and why her use of sugar in the tea signals the kind of situation she’s dealing with. We understand why Emily is Nira’s best friend, why Nira is jealous of their new friends, and why Emily is insisting that Nira be more understanding. Most of all, we understand both why Nira desires so strongly to please her parents and why she just can’t give up on music. Emily tells Nira early on that her playing reminds her of Neil—not Louis—Armstrong because when Nira plays, “[she] make[s] [Emily] think of moonlight and defying gravity” (loc. 74).
Through the book, Nira becomes a keeper of secrets, both her own and others’, and each secret “steals the stars from the sky and the light from the moon” (loc. 1538). As a reader in on those secrets, I felt every moment of Nira’s story, of her imperfections and her pursuit of growth, of her moments of being an outsider and of belonging, of seeing her path clearly and being pushed off of that path. Watching her figure out herself and those around her is a journey I won’t forget, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Pre-order Natasha Deen’s In the Key of Nira Ghani immediately. You won’t regret it.
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.
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!
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
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