True Love and Secrets

firestarsOf Fire and Stars

By Audrey Coulthurst

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

 Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

 When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

 But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

Via Goodreads

 

So the description above is a good summation of the plot. What I enjoyed about the book was the natural way the relationship between Mare and Denna developed. First they were forced together with Mare giving Denna horse-riding lessons. Then they become friends as they search for the assassin. And finally they fall in love.

The chapters switch between Denna and Mare, each in first person, which could have been tricky. While the voices and styles weren’t completely different between the two of them, I was able to remember who was speaking at all times. Certainly the chapter labels helped but even putting down the book halfway through a chapter and picking it back, I could tell who was speaking.

They need to find out how far they are willing to go to stay in each other’s lives. Denna has been raised to do the right thing, put duty first, so making a choice from love is a scary thought. Mare has always been an outsider in her royal family and as much as she does her own thing, she doesn’t want to force anyone to go along with her.

Add to the romantic tension Mare’s family who abhors magic and Denna’s secret powers. The magic becomes a catalyst for their relationship so it’s more than a fun, flashy element to the story. Mare’s kingdom hates and fears magic, and prepares to go to war with a neighboring kingdom known to support those with magical abilities. Denna must decide if she can trust Mare with her secret; otherwise she will be punished like the others.

Of Fire and Stars is a love story encased in larger tale of kingdoms and war and machinations. It is a story of two young women discovering who they are and what they are willing to stand up for.

Dueling and Complementary Themes

emberAn Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes #1

By Sabaa Tahir

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

 It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

 But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

 There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Via Goodreads

 

I always find prophecies to be tricky literary devices. Are they meant to come true no matter what or can the outcome be changed? Depending on the world of a story, one or the other must be chosen. In An Ember in the Ashes, prophecies come true but in the most unlikely ways.

Elias and Laia meet by accident after she has become a spy in the Commandant’s household and immediately are drawn to each other. They each struggle with the cards they have been dealt and are trying to be the best people they can be under terrible circumstances. Laia is undercover as a slave to get information to the Resistance in order to have them rescue her brother, her only surviving family, from prison and certain death. Elias is ready to desert from the military he has been raised to fight in when the Trials occur, an event that will result in the new emperor, and he is chosen as one of four contestants by the Aurors (those with all the prophecies).

Extreme situations, up to and including torture, keep them both learning about themselves and force them to strive further. Elias’s prophecy comes true in an extraordinary way that links him to Laia as they escape together.

It’s interesting that Laia must learn to trust people as Elias learns to be his own man, which sets him apart from the world he grew up in and his close friends. Both lessons are valuable in different situations so I appreciated having their arcs be separate but complimentary.

The ending is an obvious set up for another installment in the series, but resolution occurs for some large issues – Laia can move forward in a new way to save her brother and Elias makes peace with his best friend who doesn’t understand his choices.

On Endings within Series

leigh-bardugo-six-of-crows-new-book-01I abruptly finished Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo over the weekend. Despite the change in point of view, which didn’t feel like an indicator of an ending due to a pretty fluid third-person POV throughout the book, when I turned the final page I was surprised to find it was finished.

I had put the request in from my library quite some time ago so forgot Six of Crows is billed as the first in a series. I jumped into a fantastical world dealing with class and money and family and trust. (I feel like I should point out that the supposedly seventeen year old or so characters all seemed like adults to me, even with their constant yearnings to go home. Adults can want to go home too. Maybe because they grew up in bad circumstances or in the military from a young age they grew up fast but I read all the members of the crew as adults which felt strange for a YA novel. But I digress.)

It seemed a hefty book based on the slower uptick of my percentage read. As the main action resolved, there was a twist. Very exciting! I looked forward to seeing how it was resolved. Cue point of view change and ‘The End’ or, to be apt, ‘To Be Continued’.

Now, I’m all for a cliffhanger. I enjoyed the season six finale of The Walking Dead so I must love a cliffhanger. But Six of Crows for some reason didn’t feel satisfying at the end. I honestly don’t know what I would recommend to change the ending short of writing how the final twist is solved, although I presume it will take at least another book to do that.

Could it be a byproduct of reading so many mystery series recently? While there are character evolutions and subplots that weave through mystery series, a mystery and/or murder is solved by the end of the book. I might be left waiting for the next book to see what happens to the protagonist but I know the mystery has been solved. I’m thinking of the Cormoran Strike novels, Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery series and the Aunt Dimity series.

Six of Crows is definitely not a mystery and isn’t trying to be. It feels unfair to line up the two genres against each other.

Other series I’ve enjoyed that had through lines while wrapping things up each book are Outlander and the Pink Carnation series. Outlander is massive and captures people’s lives over the course of the series so there are most definitely big things happening and some tense moments toward the end of certain installments. The Pink Carnation series has a modern-day historian researching a different British Napoleonic spy in each book with the historian’s love life being the through line. For both series, the main action gets resolved one way or another with some breadcrumbs to keep you waiting for the next book.

As I’m writing this, I think I’m getting a clearer sense of why the ending felt so abrupt. It was the change in point of view. It distanced me from the main characters even though they were in the scene and even though I learned enough to know what the next part of their adventure will be. Maybe that was what threw me – leaving the crew I had come to know and like over the course of the novel.

It ultimately comes down to personal preference. Bardugo made a choice for the ending. It felt off to me but didn’t take away from the overall experience of the book. I became invested in the characters and want to know what happens next, which is probably why it felt all the more unexpected to leave them.

 

Jackaby by William Ritter

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I don’t so much review books as write about the books I read and what I found interesting as a reader and a writer. There may be spoilers. Reader beware.

Jackaby

By William Ritter

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

-via Goodreads

The premise of Jackaby caught my eye and the engaging characters and swift plot kept the pages turning. Abigail Rook is a fascinating narrator, a young woman searching for adventure, so much so that she has run away from home and crossed an ocean. Jackaby is a detective who can see what others can’t, i.e. supernatural beings and phenomena. There’s a ghost living in Jackaby’s home as well as an assistant currently a duck due to a bad spell.

The characters are complex and not fully understood by the end of the novel. There are more depths to be plumbed. And thankfully, there is no romance between Abigail and her employer. She has eyes for a certain policeman involved in her first case.

There are some very specific things in the book I wish would have paid off at the end and some non-specific things that I’m unsure about. Let’s begin with how some specifics are at odds with other vague items.

As noted in the description above, the location is a city in ‘New England’, not a particular state. I’m not sure that was necessary. It’s a fictional location so go ahead and pick a state. The year is specific but current events of that time are irrelevant. I think the year is a placeholder for a time before vehicles and other modern technologies, as well as a time when Abigail’s independence makes her stand out. Knowing the general time period is enough to establish those necessary elements to the characters and setting. Having a specific year seems unnecessary or, if necessary, it isn’t realized.

The primary detail that bugged me by the end of the novel was Abigail’s skill and the reason Jackaby wants to keep her around. He may see what others cannot but she sees all the ordinary details that other people just don’t bother seeing. This is demonstrated at the first crime scene when Abigail notices things in the victim’s apartment that lead her to know his job which is a key detail in their investigation.

However, her keen eye didn’t play into the climactic fight with the Big Bad and the successful resolution. She is part of the fight, and throws several poorly aimed books to thwart the criminal, but her particular skill set doesn’t directly help the fight. I would have liked that. Abigail is brave but her snappy intelligence isn’t used like it could have been.

That said, Jackaby is a charming start to a series full of colorful characters and mysterious creatures.