Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Three Dark Crowns is a story of three queens set in a uniquely crafted world and situation. Born triplets, each is identified as having a special power, and sent to be raised with the respective families who share that power. Only one of the girls can become Queen, and after displaying their skills at the celebration of their 16th birthday, called the Quickening, they have year to kill their sisters and be the last queen standing.

Mirabella is an Elemental who can control fire and storms. Katharine is a Poisoner who can withstand ingesting deadly poisons, and Arsinoe is a Naturalist who has power over plants and wild animals. The fourth power, a minority on the island of Fennbirn are the Warrior’s whose influence has faded by the time of the events in this story.

During the Quickening one of the events is the Disembarkation which is the presentation of suitors from the mainland, each of whom will court the three queens in the hopes of marrying the one who survives the Ascention Year.

Fennbirn is mystically separated from the continent, which has prevented Arsinoe from escaping the island in the past. Both Arsinoe and Katharine seem to have weaknesses and trouble with their powers, while Mirabella has wondrous control over hers and seems the likely candidate for Queen. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, often with very short chapters lasting less than a page, which really drives the story forward and makes for a true page-turner.

One of the things that I loved about this book is that there is no clear antagonist at first. As a reader I wanted to cheer for all three of the queens. While each of them have their personal faults, none of them is really at fault for their situation; they are a product of their society and the families that have respectively raised them.

There is also a wonderfully tricky and unexpected love triangle between characters in a situation that was caused purely by circumstance and without malice. To even name the three characters would be a major spoiler.

The supporting cast of noble family members, friends, suitors, and Priestesses enriches the world of Fennbirn and fleshes out the society and it’s layers. There is an excellent map in the front of the book, which is a great reference since the story moves around with the three queens and others points of view.

Mirabella, Arsinoe, and Katharine, are as deadly as they are vulnerable, and I look forward to reading what Kendare Blake has in store for them in the next volume.

Three Dark Crowns was published by HarperTeen (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers) in 2016. While a second book is in the works (according to Kendare Blake’s website), there is no scheduled release date for it as of yet.

Buy or Don’t Buy: Buy. This book has the makings of a movie all over it and is sure to become a staple of the genre. Read it and enjoy it first.

TL:DR Version

  • Genre: Teen Fantasy, Adventure, with a bit of Romance
  • Setting: The mythical island of Fennbirn, off the coast of a larger continent, medieval technology
  • Main Characters: Triplet sisters: Katharine, Arsinoe, and Mirabella each with a gift and separated at a young age, required to kill each other until only one survives for the crown.
  • Age Recommendation: 14+
  • Interesting supporting character with motivations that range from dubious to sincere, influencing the three queens in surprising ways.
  • Well set up ending for the next book

 

Started Reading: November 12

Finished Reading: November 15

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake (First Edition Hard Cover Version)
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The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse was recommended to me by friend and fellow book lover Ciara, of Lost at Midnight Reviews mainly because the main character, Kestrel, is a highly intelligent young woman who uses her brain far more than any other skill or attribute she possesses.

Set in the occupied territory of Herran where the local citizens have been enslaved by their Valorian conquerors, Kestrel, the daughter of a decorated general, impulsively purchases a slave, Arin, at auction. Rutkoski created two vibrant and deep cultures with varied traditions and gender roles. In Valorian society, options for women are limited: by the age of 18 they must either marry or join the military. In a society where military prowess is highly valued, Kestrel is barely competent physically, but mentally she is a strategic genius.

Kestrel and Arin’s lives become intertwined and they share a number of tender moments. While I found their love connection to be a bit lacking and under-established, their divided loyalty to each other and their nations are what drive the story. From the beginning it was obvious that Arin was more than a blacksmith, but his true identity and position within Herran society make him a compelling character and create high stakes consequences for his actions and decisions.

Aside from Kestrel and Arin, Rutkoski created a diverse group of supporting characters. On Kestrel’s side there is her stern and demanding father, General Trajan, her flighty but genuine best friend Jess, and Jess’s very eligible brother, Ronan. A few other high born Valorian’s fill out a representation of society, including a nasty piece of work in the form of the Emperor, who hangs over the story but plays a bigger role in the latter third of the book.

When tensions between Herrani people ant the Valorian Empire come to a head Kestrel faces a dangerous choice that pits her against Arin and his people. Her decision is heart-wrenching and closes out the beginning of an intriguing and highly entertaining fantasy series.

This book fits perfectly into the genre that I love, so I bought the sequel, Winner’s Crime, immediately but have not had the chance to read it as yet (in December 2016), but it is on my list for next year.

The Winner’s Curse was published by Square Fish (an imprint of MacMillan) in 2014 and was followed a year later by The Winner’s Crime, and concluded earlier this year with The Winner’s Kiss.

Buy or Don’t Buy: Buy if you love YA Fantasy. This series should absolutely be on your bookshelf. Also a great buy if you are not into High Fantasy (a la Lord of the Rings), but want a taste of different cultures and countries, without fantasy creatures.

TL DR Version:
• Genre – Fantasy – no magic or creatures, but a well-developed cultures and traditions
• Setting – three fictional realms – Valoria, Herran and Dacra
• Age Recommendation: 13+
• Third Person Point of View – Switching between Kestral and Arin
• Excellent political intrigue and manoeuvering by various characters. Uncomplicated, because it is only between two nations, but compelling.
Started Reading: May 5
Finished Reading: May 12

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The Winner’s Curse (Book 1 of the Winner’s Trilogy) by Marie Rutkoski

Finding Fraser by KC Dyer

I was very excited to read this book having spent quite a bit of time in Scotland, especially in the town of Keith which is about 60 km down the A96 from the town of Nairn where much of the story takes place. KC Dyer does an excellent job of describing the atmosphere, setting, and history of each place her character visits, which made me ache to return to Scotland within the first 80 pages. Her description of Emma’s exploration of Edinburgh Castle and later Culloden battlefield, were powerfully accurate and brought me right back to my visit to both sites in May 2014.

As much as I loved Dyer’s descriptions of Scotland, the land, and it’s people, Emma Sheridan is a naïve, sheltered American with no travel experience, who makes rookie traveller mistakes. All of her stuff is stolen by a super sketchy new ‘friend’, which was predictable. I think what made me even more frustrated is that I had my passport pickpocketed from me in Aberdeen Airport in December 2005, and I felt (much like her sister in the story) that her response was irresponsible, and she relied on the goodwill of others which is what got her into trouble in the first place. The character didn’t learn.

This was, of course, a mechanism for the character to hop around Scotland and try to find different jobs until finally landing in Nairn and returning to the main idea of the story: Finding Fraser. Throughout the story Emma meets a variety of Scottish men, some with more Jaime potential than others. Her original plan to retrace Clare’s route through Scotland is messed up by the aforementioned robbery, and her new route criss-crosses the country based on gut instincts and need, rather than a consideration for budget or time-frame.

Of course Emma finds a lovely man eventually and it is really quite sweet, but it is the other women in the story that stand out and have the greatest impact on her. Emma’s sister Sophia, and her landlady Morag ground the story with their practicality and heart, respectively.

While I may have been frustrated with Emma throughout this book, I couldn’t help but be lifted by Dyer’s description of Sterling and the Wallace Monument. When I was first in Scotland in March 2002 the Wallace Monument was one of the few landmarks I knew of other than Edinburgh Castle and Loch Ness, and on my first day in the country, and very jetlagged, climbed to the top of it.

Overall I was satisfied with the ending even though I had issues with her travel details (you will see what I mean if you read it..). It is a nice quick read with some really funny and heartwarming parts. Not recommended for a book club, but a good beach read this summer.

Finding Fraser was published by Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random House) on May 15, 2015 and may be having a resurgence in popularity due to the soft cover release of he book as well as the second season of Outlander currently being aired on Starz.

Buy or Don’t Buy: Buy only if you have read Outlander AND really want to read a naïve millennial’s self discovery journey in Scotland

TL:DR Version

  • Genre – Travel story, fish-out-of-water, self-discovery, romance
  • Setting – Starts in the United States (Chicago and Philadelphia), mostly in Scotland
  • Main Character: Emma Sheridan – 29 year old American woman sells everything and goes to Scotland looking for love
  • Lots of mistakes made by the main character along the way, some of which seem unrealistic (from an experienced travelers point of view)
  • Good supporting characters and a few different potential romantic partners
  • Inspired by Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series
  • Lots of nostalgia for people who have been to Scotland (10 points for mentioning Irn Bru)
  • Easy/Quick read

Started Reading: April 29

Finished Reading: May 2

Finding Fraser by KC Dyer
Finding Fraser by KC Dyer (Canadian Cover 2016)

The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead

This is such a well-constructed story form Richelle Mead and an exciting opening to what should be a great series. Mead has crafted a unique alternate universe that is a reflection of our own Elizabethan time period combined with the adventure and danger of frontier life in the new world. The Glittering Court is a company that polishes lower class and working girls from the country of Osfrid and trains them for a genteel life as a wife of the newly rich and powerful in the fledgling continent of Adoria.

The young and beautiful Countess of Rothford is bound to an unfavourable arranged marriage required by her family’s financial misfortune. While in the process of reducing her staff, the Countess comes across a meeting between her maid, Adelaide, and Cedric Thorn, a representative of the Glittering Court. The Countess convinces Adelaide to return to her family in the countryside and takes her place, and her name.

The Countess, now called Adelaide, is taken with two other young women, Mira and Tamsin, to Blue Spring Manor where they meet the rest of the women being trained by the Glittering Court. Cedric Thorn recognises Adelaide and confronts her about what she is trying to do, but she insists in continuing, and he agrees to keep her secret. Over the next few months, the women train in various practical and courtly skills. Adelaide, Mira, and Tamsin become good friends, as well as competitors for the top spot of all the Glittering Court girls.

As I said, the book is so well constructed: the first part opens up the world that the Countess of Rothford lives in and the socio-economic divide between the ruling elites and everyone else. Mead also gives us a taste at this point of the underlying religious tension. The second part of the book is the training at Blue Spring Manor, which is isolated, giving the reader the chance to get to know each of the main characters as well as build tension for the inevitable arrival in the new world. This is where the flirtatious romantic tension begins to build between Adelaide and Cedric. The third part of the book (the book is not actually divided into parts, but there is a clear mood and setting change), takes place in Adoria where the ladies of the Glittering Court are introduced to the eligible men of Adoria. While the city is quite cosmopolitan, it is under threat from attacks from the local native population (who are vaguely Scottish in appearance, dress, and weaponry), and there is plenty of political maneuvering among the wealthy, particularly the governor, Warren Doyle.

While Adelaide is the focus, Mira and Tamsin are incredibly interesting characters whose backstories are never fully explained. They each have hidden motivations and multiple secrets, creating a tension in the friendship that comes from a place of concern for each other’s wellbeing. Mead has left plenty of questions to be answered for Mira and Tamsin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the upcoming novels, they had their own point-of-view chapters.

One thing I love about fantasy is that it can be incredibly allegorical. I don’t know if that was Mead’s intention, but the interwoven subplots regarding refugees and religious intolerance are incredibly poignant and I look forward to seeing where she goes with those plotlines.

The Glittering Court was published by Penguin/Random House on April 5, 2016, written by bestselling author of the Vampire Diaries, Richelle Mead. No release date or title have been announced for the sequel.

Buy or Don’t Buy: Buy if you like Teen Fantasy and can wait for the next one

TL DR Version:

  • Genre – Fantasy – No Magic or Creatures, AU Historical Fiction, Teen
  • Setting – Elizabethan-esq Old World, North American-ish frontier New World
  • Trigger Warning: Attempted Rape, Violence
  • Age Recommendation: 15+
  • First Person Point of View – Countess of Rothford/Adelaide
  • Great Romantic Plot with well developed supporting characters, cultures, and religious tension.
  • Great use of different settings to change the tone and move the plot forward.

Started Reading: March 27

Finished Reading: March 31

The Glittering Court - Richelle Mead
The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead (Canadian Cover, 2016)

A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

A Thousand Pieces of You is a Sci-Fi, dimension jumping, murder mystery, romance with a hint of historical fiction. While this may sound disjointed, it is all brought together with a concise plot driven by clear character motivations.

Gray introduces us to Marguerite Caine who is the artsy one in a very academic family. Marguerite is intuitive and intelligent enough in her own right but for the purpose of the reader exploring her world, she listens to the explanations of all the scientists around her; her parents: Dr. Henry Caine and Dr. Sophia Kovalenka, her sister, and two very different, and eligible grad students, Theo and Paul.

When Marguerites father is murdered and the prime suspect, Paul, jumps into a different dimension using a firebird (a device created for this purpose by Dr. Kovalenka), Marguerite and Theo follow him, intent on revenge.

Throughout the book, Gray uses flashbacks to provide context and background to both the scientific and relationship developments that led up to Dr. Caine’s murder. Through these, the origin of Marguerites feelings for Theo and Paul are explored, and the research developments and theories that led to the current situation are revealed.

One of the more interesting aspects of Gray’s world-building is how when a person jumps dimensions, they inhabit their doppelgangers body and must be shocked by the firebird to remember who they are from their own dimension. Marguerite, however, is different and doesn’t need this reminder.

The characters first jump into a futuristic London, where Marguerite lives with her Aunt. While still grieving from the death of her father in her own dimension, she learns that her whole family is dead in this dimension. She reunites with Theo and they go after Paul, who is attending a presentation by Wyatt Conley, a tech genius in seemingly every dimension. When Marguerite corners Paul, she discovers that he didn’t know that her father was dead, and he certainly had nothing to do with it. Moments later, Marguerite and Paul jump dimensions into an alternate version of Imperial Russia. Marguerite is the daughter of the Tsar and Paul is her personal guard. Within moments of their arrival, Marguerites firebird breaks, and Paul’s is stolen – meaning that without the firebird’s reminder, he is trapped within this dimensions Paul.

This is where A Thousand Pieces of You becomes impossible to set aside. The intriguing world of an alternate dimension Imperial Russia (whose tech is lagging a bit behind the real world), is lush and romantic, creating the perfect setting for Marguerite to discover her feelings for Paul, or perhaps Lieutenant Pavel Markov as he is in this dimension. There is an urgency to fix the broken firebird and find the other one amid political turmoil that turns deadly.

While the Russian setting was my favourite and I didn’t want it to end, it was inevitable that the characters would find a way to dimension jump again and unravel the real mystery at hand: who killed Dr. Henry Caine and why. The answers are well worth the wait and Gray crafted an ending that is both suspenseful and fulfilling. Each dimension is a unique take on a world that could have existed, or could yet exist. The Caine family relationships are believable in the way they care, banter, and argue. Their relationships that are shown in both flashbacks and alternate dimensions affect Marguerites grief, which is a significant theme through the first two thirds of the book.

While I found some of the twists to be predictable, they still didn’t turn out exactly the way I thought they would, which was a nice surprise for this genre.

While many questions are answered in the final chapter, the sequel Ten Thousand Skies Above You was released on November 3, 2015 continues the story which will be concluded with A Million Worlds with You on November 1, 2016. A Thousand Pieces of You was published by HarperTeen in 2014 (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

Buy or Don’t Buy: Buy if you want a blend of genres with a protagonist who drops great pop-culture references.

TL DR Version:

  • Genre: Sci-fi, dimension jumping murder-mystery, romance
  • Setting: San Francisco, London, Russia
  • Age Recommendation: 13+ for a brief (PG) sex scene
  • First Person Point of View – Marguerite
  • Romantic triangle (that is resolved [?] by the end of book 1)
  • Well thought out alternate dimensions with fun tech and/or history
  • Smart female protagonist that is impulsive but (refreshingly) knows her skills and limitations

Started Reading: March 13, 2016

Finished Reading: March 20, 2016

A Thousand Pieces of You - Claudia Gray
A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray book cover (in Canada 2016)

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

This debut novel opens with action as we are introduced to Laia, whose remaining family is killed or captured in a raid by the ruthless agents of the empire, the Masks. They are so-called for the silver masks that are bound to their faces. Laia escapes but her brother is captured due to his suspected ties to the Scholar Resistance. Tahir draws out the political, social, and cultural details slowly, focusing on bringing the reader into Laia’s immediate devastation and her singular mission to find her brother. This mission leads Laia to the Scholars Resistance, who send her on a mission of their own; they will help get her brother back if she spy’s for them on the Commandant of Blackcliff, the training fortress of the Masks.

As soon as we are convinced that the Masks and the Empire are evil, we are introduced to Elias, a Mask-in-training, who on the eve of his graduation is making his final preparations to desert his position and run away from the grip of the Empire. During the graduation ceremony, the mysterious and immortal Augers announce that the four top students will compete in the Trials to become the new Emperor. Elias, his best friend Helene (the only female student at Blackcliff), and the despicable twins Marcus and Zak are those four students.

While it is obvious that the paths of Elias and Laia will cross at some point, Tahir takes her time, allowing the reader to understand each character, and their supporting characters, on their own, before having their worlds collide. While some readers may find this to be a slow approach, there is enough of interest in each characters situation to keep the story suspenseful. Both Elias and Laia have unique and interesting parentage that is explored, and each comes from a different culture and standing within society. When Elias and Laia do finally meet, we have an understanding of who they are as individuals before having any idea how they can help each other reach their personal goals.

The intensity of the Trials, and the abuse that Laia takes at the hands of the Commandant and Marcus take us through the majority of the book, with the understanding of the high stakes of the situation being further revealed with every chapter.

Tahir fills out the story with supporting characters such as the members of the resistance; her fellow slaves at Blackcliff, Cook and Izzi; Spiro Teluman, a famed weapon smith with hidden loyalties; and Elias’ grandfather. She weaves in hints and instances of supernatural and magical elements that seem to have been lost within the history of the story, that will no doubt be explored further in the next installment of this epic fantasy.

Ultimately this is a story of hope and the quest for freedom from a brutal world in which people feel trapped, no matter what their station within society.

Originally published in 2015 by Razorbill/Penguin in Canada and the United States, the book has been picked up by Paramount for a movie adaptation produced by some of the same people who brought Chronicles of Narnia to the screen. The sequel A Torch against the Night is scheduled to be released on August 30, 2016

Buy or Don’t Buy: Buy if you are really into Teen Fantasy

TL DR Version:

  • Epic Fantasy, Ancient/ Early Medieval technology, magical elements
  • Trigger Warning: torture, attempted rape
  • Age recommendation: 15+ for violence and sexual tension
  • Two strong main characters with their own Points of View
  • Good World Building (2 maps included)
  • Cliff hanger ending that leads directly into the sequel

Started Reading: March 5, 2016

Finished Reading: March 13, 2016

An Ember in the Ashes - Sabaa Tahir
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Book cover in Canada, 2016)

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a funny and heart-wrenching story of two very different people who are thrown into each others worlds. Louisa Clark, a recently unemployed woman in her late 20’s, living at home with her parents, takes on a 6 month contract as a companion to Will Traynor, a wealthy man in his mid 30’s who is a quadriplegic. Louisa’s eccentric dress style and adorkable personality hides painful scars of an incident from her past. Will’s pain and discomfort coupled with his sarcastic and acerbic nature is mixed with a dry British humour that barely masks the psychological trauma of being ripped away from ones life in their physical prime.

Within weeks of beginning her contract, Louisa discovers that it is only 6 months because that is how long Will has agreed to give his parents to try to change his mind before his appointment with Dignitas: the death with dignity organization located in Switzerland.

This story not only sheds light on the day to day needs, issues, and capabilities of the quadriplegic community; it also brings attention to the controversial death with dignity (also called doctor assisted suicide) issue. Moyes presents multiple opinions on different sides of the issue without ever being preachy or even indicating where she stands on the topic herself.

Surrounding the two main characters is a well crafted cast of supporting characters that are fully realized, and it feels natural when she gives some of them their own point of view chapters through which we get to observe Louisa and Will in a different way.

At first instinct, the book may seem like a piece of ChickLit, but this book is much more important than it will ever be given credit for. It is, of course, a love story, but the portrayal of a quadriplegic in such a strong, romantic role is rare and very much needed as it brings both awareness to the community and adds character diversity to the fiction world.

Originally published in 2012 by Penguin Books, Me Before You is garnering renewed attention due to the upcoming movie adaptation staring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin as Louisa and Will, respectively, which is set to release in Canada on June 3, 2016.

Buy or Don’t Buy: Buy

TL DR Version:

  • Easy/Fast Read
  • Setting: English castle town in 2007-2009
  • Main Characters: Louisa age 27, Will age 35
  • Topical book on a controversial issue (death with dignity)
  • Unique piece: Quadriplegic main character
  • Good subplots to keep the story moving
  • Book club discussion questions included
  • Satisfying ending
  • Sequel released in 2015

Started Reading: March 4, 2016

Finished Reading: March 5, 2016

Me Before You - Jojo Moyes
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, Book cover (in Canada, 2016)